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The White Lotus Gambit

Chapter Text

Fourteen-year-old Katara Enuaraq took a deep breath as she briefly closed her eyes, feeling the by now familiar pressure at the back of her mind. Immediately, the tiles on the Pai Sho board in front of her began to swirl and change their shape, turning into chunks of ice, drifting in the tumultuous deep waters of the northern seas. Katara did not even attempt to pointlessly struggle against the vision, allowing it to take over her, as the ice blocks slowly settled into recognizable patterns, reverting into Pai Sho tiles. Suddenly, Katara saw previously unnoticed possibilities, moves and combinations on the Pai Sho board. Having spent a few minutes considering her options, the Water Tribe girl reached out, picking up the Rock tile and placing it on the board, then pushing the button on the Pai Sho clock to trigger her opponent's move.

Across the table from Katara, her peer and very good friend, Yue Taqqiq, blinked in surprise at Katara's move. The white-haired girl had expected Katara's Orchid tile to capture and remove her Chrysanthemum tile, but then Katara had played a move that at face value appeared illogical. Her Rock tile had denied Yue the chance to form a harmony, but it had also blocked Katara's own potential harmony. And now, this strange tactic had clearly thrown Yue off her game.

It wasn't that Yue was a bad player. On the contrary, she was considered Katara's equal, and the two of them were by far the strongest youth players of their age bracket in the Water Tribes. When it came to qualifying for World Junior Championships, Yue and Katara were considered a lock for the two spots allocated to the Water Tribes. They had first been introduced some three years ago, during a qualifying tournament in Agna Qel'a, and they had become friends almost instantly.

Also, a year ago, when Katara's brother Sokka had accompanied her to the World Junior Championships held in Gaoling, he had somehow worked up the courage to ask Yue out on a date. Surprisingly, she had accepted, and the two had been dating since then. Katara loved her brother dearly, even if he could be insufferable at times, but as far as she was concerned, Yue should have been way out of his league, both in terms of her beauty and her social status. The Taqqiq family wasn't poor like the Enuaraq family was, a single-parent household with their father Hakoda working ungodly hours out on the oil rig, sometimes being absent for four or five days on the trot. In comparison, the Taqqiq's were rich landowners in the north, and some of those lands were rumored to contain rich oil reserves.

After roughly fifteen minutes of hard thinking and trying to guess what Katara was playing at, Yue finally made her move. Her Chrysanthemum tile moved out of the reach of Katara's Orchid, also escaping the blockade formed by the Rock tile. It was a perfectly understandable move and a forced one unless Yue was prepared to lose her flower tile. Unfortunately, she was about to lose more than just a flower tile. Katara played her next move without much deliberation, playing the Boat tile and moving her White Jade tile out of the blockade formed by the Rock. Suddenly, Yue realized that she had stepped into a trap. With the White Jade exposed, Katara now had a choice between two ways of forming a harmony ring with her next move, and there was no way for Yue to block them both. With a sigh, Yue reached out and stopped the timing clock, then extending her arm to offer Katara a handshake. Katara accepted it with a shy smile.

"Great game, Kat," Yue was magnanimous in defeat, which was yet another thing Katara liked about the other girl. "The move with the Rock, whoa, that was something. How did you think of that?"

"I don't really know, I guess I just got lucky," Katara smiled in return. Her visions were not something that Katara particularly longed to explain. Katara had lost her mother Kya in a very traumatic hit-and-run incident when she was merely nine years of age, and in order to cope with the resulting anxiety and panic attacks, she had been proscribed something called Librium. Katara knew that she had never had these visions before starting to take the medication. When at the age of twelve she had told her father and grandmother about her visions, they had insisted that Katara should be taken off her medication, but unfortunately, it had turned her life into a living nightmare. In the end, her father had ended up begging the doctors to put her back on the prescription drugs, because there had been a very real danger of Katara harming herself.

Now, at the age of fourteen, she was still on Librium, but at least at a reduced dosage. She could sometimes go for a week or more without having to take one of those big green pills, but it helped to have them on hand when she had to cope with stressful situations, such as tournament play. Katara often felt guilty about taking the pills during tournaments, because they intensified her visions and made her feel as if she was using performance enhancing drugs. She felt guilty even if she knew that she wasn't using Librium for performance, she needed it simply to remain functional. A few months ago, unbeknownst to her family, Katara had gone to see a highly regarded neurologist in Agna Qel'a who had told her that prolonged usage of Librium at such a young age would have already irreversibly altered her brain chemistry, meaning that she was stuck with these visions for the rest of her life.

"That's some luck, Kat," Yue grinned at her as they both got up from their seats. The audience in the hall immediately responded, giving them both a round of applause, mostly aimed at Katara. The great hall of the University of Yu Dao where the World Junior Championships for kids aged twelve to fourteen (or U15's as they were commonly known) was being held was almost half full, which was not a bad showing for the game of Pai Sho, its popularity in ascendence. Sure, most of the spectators were university students, making the most of an opportunity to get out of their lectures, but it was still nice to have an attentive audience. "Say, Sokka and I were going to hang out later, would you like to join us?" Yue asked.

"I would have liked to, but I already promised Aang and Toph to hang out with them," Katara replied apologetically, spotting the blue shirt of her brother in the audience, briefly wondering whom he had been rooting for, her or Yue. "Also, I'd like to see how the other games are progressing," she said, turning to regard the other Pai Sho tables in the hall, three from the six games still ongoing.

"Well, some other time then," Yue smiled at her, the two sharing a brief hug before the white-haired girl walked away.

Katara wasn't left alone for long however, as another girl walked up to her shortly afterwards, and she could not have looked more different from Yue Taqqiq if she had tried. Short and a little bit on the stocky side, young Toph Beifong looked precious in her green dress, black knee-high platform boots to make up for her lack of height, and the thick spectacles on the tip of her nose. "Hey, I saw that Rock move of yours, Tara!" Toph announced cheerfully. "That was awesome!"

"Thank you, Toph," Katara smiled at her younger friend. "And how was your match?" she asked.

"Eh, I destroyed some poor Fire Nation schmuck in twenty moves," Toph shrugged. "No big deal."

"That's impressive," Katara chuckled. She didn't necessarily agree with poor Shoji Nomura being dismissed as some Fire Nation schmuck, but that was Toph for you. She wasn't always the most reverential person.

Katara had met Toph and the third linchpin in their close circle of friends, Aang Jetsun, during one of the Pai Sho summer camps held by the retired grandmaster and former world champion, Iroh Nakamura. "Uncle" Iroh, as he was fondly referred to by the kids attending his camps, was a Fire Nation exile currently living in Ba Sing Se, with a large out of town estate on the shore of Serpent's Lake. The powerful Nakamura family had been split right down the middle by a nasty divorce between Iroh's brother Ozai and his wife Ursa. With Iroh testifying in court about Ozai's penchant for cruelty, he had broken all ties with his brother, and subsequently the Fire Nation, now flying under the radar in his exile.

The summer camps of Uncle Iroh were primarily aimed at talented children of lesser means, kids like Katara, Aang, and many others. Still, Iroh never turned away anyone with passion for Pai Sho, which was why many children from rich families, such as Yue and Toph, also often took part in these camps, benefitting greatly from Iroh's insight and expertise. Of course, none of the Fire Nation kids were allowed to attend these camps, as it would constitute to near treason back in their homeland. Still, Fire Nation exiles like Iroh's nephew Zuko and a girl from Yu Dao by the name of Kori Morishita were constantly in attendance.

From all the kids at the camp, Katara had immediately hit it off with both Aang and Toph. Being a couple of years older than the two others, Katara had begun to notice some signs early in their friendship. Toph seemed to be quite attracted to Aang, although she always vehemently denied it whenever Katara tried to set up something just between her and Aang. And on his part, Aang seemed to be rather into Katara, which was not a complication Katara needed or wanted. It had been slightly more than a year since Katara had acknowledged something about herself. She simply was not attracted to boys. No, she was attracted to girls… and one girl in particular, but there was an added complication, and it was a big one. She was attracted to the girl who was dating her brother, and she simply could not put Yue out of her mind, those beautiful white locks of hair framing her delicate face. There was a reason why she preferred to hang out with Aang and Toph, instead of spending time with Sokka and Yue. Watching her brother getting all touchy-feely with his girlfriend was not at all easy for Katara.

"Let's go see how Aang is doing," Katara said, taking Toph's hand as they walked over to where Aang was trying to resist his opponent, remaining at a respectable distance from the table.

"Oh, Twinkletoes is getting his ass handed to him on a silver platter," Toph chuckled. From Aang's posture, elbows on the table, propping up his chin, eyes wide in disbelief, Katara could easily determine that the game was not going well for their friend. And seeing just who he was up against, Katara was not at all surprised.

Azula Nakamura was a very strange young Fire Nation girl. Her appearance was always impeccable, from the tips of her glistening red boots, to her top-knot of hair, perfectly framing her delicate yet severe looking face, not a single lock ever out of place. She had first arrived on the Pai Sho scene the previous year, demolishing her opposition in the Fire Nation qualifiers and then going on to win the U15 World Championships at the age of thirteen with only victories to her name. It was as if her father, the reigning world champion Ozai Nakamura, had been preparing a weapon in secret before unleashing Azula on the unsuspecting world of Pai Sho and taking it by the storm. The same pattern appeared set to repeat this year. As the reigning U15 champion, Azula didn't need to qualify, being given an automatic spot, and now at the main event, she was once again crushing everyone. The way her Orchid tile was decimating Aang's helpless flower tiles was just depressing to watch, and while Azula always remained perfectly emotionless during her matches, Katara could have sworn that she had spotted just a tiny reflection of a smug smirk on Azula's cherry red lips.

There was something about this girl which made her greatly feared by her fellow players, but also disliked and even hated. Katara thought that hatred was far too harsh a sentiment to harbor for someone when it came to Pai Sho, but she could understand the reaction Azula elicited in the others. Her perfection rubbed most people the wrong way, making her appear elitist, aloof, arrogant and disdainful. She arrived for her games perfectly on time, crushed her opposition without a single word, shook hands, bowed and left, never bothering to interact with the other kids, as if she considered everyone else beneath her. Even Azula's style of play seemed alien to Katara. She never seemed to take more than a minute to consider her move. Azula always appeared to have an answer for everything, and on the only occasion Katara had faced her (which had been a hopeless defeat), Katara had felt as if she had been playing some kind of automaton and not a human being at all.

This was why Azula Nakamura was almost unanimously feared and disliked by her peers, not that she seemed to care. The only opinion she seemingly cared about was that of her harsh and controlling father.

After Aang had been finally put out of his misery and Azula had left without saying a word, the happy-go-lucky Air Nation kid walked up to join Katara and Toph, quickly brushing off his humiliating evisceration at the hands of the reigning champion. "How does she do it?" Aang chuckled, shaking his head. "Well, I need something to take my mind off from being humiliated by Azula Nakamura. Want to go to the ice cream parlor?" he asked, looking at Katara.

"Sure," Katara nodded, not letting go of Toph's hand. She hoped that Aang wasn't truly being as rude as to ignore Toph when she was standing right there next to him. "Let's go, Toph," Katara added, tugging on Toph's hand. If Aang had been a little disappointed by not getting any alone time with her, to his credit he managed not to show it.

"Alright, I guess you two freeloaders will want me to pay, right?" Toph laughed as they made their way towards the side exit, just to avoid being jumped by some autograph seekers, not that there were many of them.

"I can pay this time, Toph," Katara replied. It was true, she could, but she also could not deny that hanging out with Toph was beneficial because of her rich parents who seemed to have their fingers in every pie possible. It wasn't the reason why she liked to hang out with Toph, but… the more money she could bring back from these tournaments, the easier the life for her family would be. It was hard enough for her father and grandmother to scrape up the funds to send her and Sokka all the way to Yu Dao. If only her father would listen when she told him that he didn't need to send Sokka with her, but no, of course a fourteen-year-old girl in a large city needed the protection of her big brother. And of course, Sokka wanted to hang out with Yue, so he always insisted on coming along because Katara needed his protection…

"Relax, Sweetness," Toph snorted. "I'll cover the bill as usual, it's not a problem. Let's put the riches of my family to good use, I say… and that means stuffing ourselves as full with ice-cream as we possibly can!"

Less than an hour later, three seriously ice-cream stuffed teenagers were sitting around a table in the ice-cream parlor, struggling not to groan from how full they were. "This is really good, Toph," Aang managed, giving the girl a grateful smile. "My loss to Azula no longer stings so badly."

"Happy to help," Toph grinned at the Air Nation boy. "I wish I could get some payback on her, but unfortunately I've already lost my chance. If it hadn't been the first game of the tournament and I hadn't been so rusty, I could have taken her, I know it!"

"Of course, Toph," Aang said, then turning towards Katara with a beaming, adoring smile. "But Katara still has to play her, and she will avenge us. I really believe you can take Azula down, Katara."

"Thanks, Aang," Katara smiled back at the boy. Honestly, he was so sweet that Katara often felt guilty for not being able to summon feelings stronger than friendship for him. Eventually, if Aang's crush wouldn't fade on its own, Katara would have to break his heart, and she was not looking forward to that because Aang deserved better. As an orphan he had been raised by a guardian, a kindly older man by the name of Gyatso, who had achieved international fame decades ago by briefly becoming the Pai Sho world champion. Gyatso still occasionally took part in professional Pai Sho tournaments, but his age and frail health precluded him from becoming a permanent fixture on the professional Pai Sho circuit. Still, he had done an admirable job at instilling love for the game in Aang and shaping Aang's considerable talent in becoming another potential Air Nation great.

And the Air Nation needed Aang's success. There were not many prospects for those born in the tiny strip of land on the outskirts of the Earth Kingdom, the Air Nation's name derived from its famous mountain temples, rising above the clouds. People of the Air Nation were known for their spirituality, and unfortunately, also for their poverty. Theirs was a harsh life at the edge of the habitable world, struggling to manage what little resources were available to them, while the rest of the world barely paid them any heed. Indeed, when it came to the Pai Sho tournaments, the Air Nation youths weren't even guaranteed representation. They had to qualify alongside the Earth Kingdom candidates, fighting for one of the four available spots. Four other spots went to the Fire Nation, two to the Water Tribes, and two were left as wild cards, invites left up to discretion of the organizing committee. This year, the Yu Dao organizers had unsurprisingly handed out the two wild cards to Earth Kingdom players, Joo Dee Feng and Kori Morishita. These wild card assignments always proved controversial and caused accusations of corruption, even more so this year, considering that Kori was a local Yu Dao girl with no particularly impressive results at any level.

"I'm not sure I'm good enough to beat Azula Nakamura, though," Katara said a while later. "Her style is way too aggressive for me to handle."

"Come on, Sweetness, you're just as good as Azula and you know it," Toph shook her head. "And you're the only one who can still stop her. Sure, she has won all of her matches so far, but you have like seven wins and two draws, right?"

"And those draws are there only because Katara went easy on us, Toph," Aang chuckled. Katara blushed lightly, having to admit that Aang was not wrong. She probably could have beaten both Toph and Aang in her games with them, but she hadn't pressed her advantage hard enough. This was really Katara's only weakness as a Pai Sho player. She sometimes lacked the ruthlessness and the killer instinct required to win, especially when she had to play someone she genuinely liked.

"We still have two rounds left, so I might lose my next game and then it won't matter what happens with Azula," Katara argued.

"Who are you playing in the next round, Katara?" Toph asked.

"Umm… On Ji Takeda, I think," Katara replied.

"Pfft, she's pathetic," Toph scowled. "These Fire Nation kids are just a bunch of losers. If it wasn't for Azula, they'd be the laughing stock of Pai Sho world. It's going to be you against Azula for the title in the last round, Katara, mark my words."

"Great, I can't wait," Katara sighed, feeling an uncomfortable sensation at the pit of her stomach. She wasn't at all looking forward to playing Azula Nakamura. Something about that girl really unnerved her. "Who are you both playing next round?"

"I'm playing Teo," Aang said. "He's really good. But if I beat him, I would move into the third place." Katara could understand Aang's hopes well. Third place came with a modest stipend, something that Aang definitely needed a lot more than most of the other kids.

"Yue for me," Toph added. "Not a walk in the park, I know."

"I can't believe another tournament is almost over," Aang sighed, looking a little sad. "These are the two best weeks of my year. Oh, well… except the summer month at Uncle Iroh's camp, of course!"

Katara smiled at Aang, nodding in agreement. The championship was the highlight of her year as well. A round-robin competition meant that everyone got to play eleven games, which were spread over the course of two weeks, with a few off-days tossed in-between to reduce the stress. Not many people truly understood that playing Pai Sho at a high level exacted a great mental and physical toll. It wasn't about just showing up at the university hall to spend a couple of hours playing the game. There was prep work beforehand and analysis afterwards. Those who skipped out on these important aspects of the game would soon find themselves plummeting in the tournament standings.

"I take it that you're coming to the camp this summer as well, Twinkletoes?" Toph asked with hope in her voice.

"Sure! What about you both?" Aang replied excitedly.

"Well, obviously… duh!" Toph grinned.

Katara reached out across the table, taking both Aang and Toph's hands in hers. "Wouldn't miss it for the world, you guys," she said, smiling broadly. "I wouldn't miss it for the world."

Azula Nakamura sat at the restaurant table, letting out an inward sigh as she stared down at her dish. Escargot was one of her all-time favorite dishes, she loved it enough to order it as a main, but right now, Azula felt her appetite quickly draining away, replaced by tension and anxiety as she kept slipping the occasional glance at her stern looking father on the other side of the table.

Ever since picking her up from the University of Yu Dao, Ozai had hardly spoken a word to her, maintaining silence that had become uncomfortable a long time ago. Azula could sense that her father was displeased with her, despite the easy victory she had scored against that Air Nation nobody. But she couldn't figure out the exact reason for her father's displeasure, and it was slowly driving her crazy, her anxiety mounting as she quietly waited for the inevitable tongue lashing. And hopefully, it would stop at being merely a tongue lashing.

Struggling to swallow, she managed to down a couple of the deliciously prepared snails. Azula knew that her father would not allow them to leave until she had finished her meal. It didn't matter that he could afford to buy the moon for her, this wasn't about money. This was about manners and discipline.

"You disappointed me today," Ozai spoke up suddenly as Azula was in the process of raising her fork. It remained frozen half-way from her mouth, Azula staring at her father, unmoving. "You did not have to spend so much time disposing of your opponent. Why expend unnecessary resources?"

"I… I just wanted to humiliate him a little bit," Azula replied timidly. "That fool actually thinks he's talented."

"He is talented, Azula," Ozai spoke sternly, staring down hard at his daughter. "Your showboating was a show of disrespect. Whatever we might think of those beneath us, our actions must always show why we are above them. I demand excellence, Azula, not some kind of misplaced theatrics."

"I… I'm sorry, father, I just didn't think-…"

"That's right, you didn't think about how your actions will make you appear, Azula," Ozai chided her. "I demand perfection not only with every move on the Pai Sho board, but also with every move away from the board. That includes your conduct, Azula. Defeating young Aang Jetsun in forty-one moves when you could have finished him off in twenty-seven is not acceptable."

"I don't think I could have finished him off that early, father," Azula dared to disagree.

"Ah, but you could have," Ozai smirked knowingly. "Figuring out how you could have done that will be your task for this evening. Also, finish your meal. If you can't solve the Pai Sho problem I have presented you with, then prepare to go without supper."

"Y-yes, father," Azula managed, her hand trembling slightly as she returned her attention to the escargot. Despite being cooked to perfection, her favorite meal suddenly left a dreadful aftertaste in her mouth.

Chapter Text

On the eve of the decisive game of the tournament, Katara found herself unusually confident about her chances against Azula Nakamura. Just a couple of days ago, the prospect of facing Azula in a showdown for this year's title had felt very scary and daunting. Having easily defeated On Ji Takeda the day before had boosted Katara's confidence further, and following that, together with Toph and Aang they had spent hours in Katara's hotel room, analyzing Azula's games from earlier in the tournament and trying to come up with a strategy to foil the Fire Nation prodigy.

Katara felt immensely grateful towards their two younger friends for their assistance, especially Aang. He remained in contention to claim the third spot, but Aang still decided to forego his own preparations in order to help Katara. Perhaps his decision was motivated by his feelings towards Katara, and perhaps Toph had insisted in joining them because she was a little jealous and didn't like the idea of Aang and Katara spending the whole evening in Katara's room. Regardless of all these romantic complications, the three of them had spent a very fruitful evening at the Pai Sho board, coming up with a strategy that made Katara feel very good about her chances.

Still, despite all these solid preparations, after Aang and Toph had left and Katara was once again alone in her room, she found it impossible to fall asleep. It was 2am in the morning when Katara finally gave in and dug out the jar of those large green pills. Katara had hoped to get through the night without having to rely on Librium, but aware that without a wink of sleep she would be completely useless in the morning, Katara eventually admitted defeat. Less than half an hour later, she was out cold, waking up well past 8am when a slightly concerned Sokka had shaken her awake.

When they arrived at the University of Yu Dao a couple of hours later, Katara was still feeling unnaturally mellow and relaxed from the effects of the sedative. The great hall was abuzz with spectators, almost full to the brim, a change from the previous days. It seemed that even the casual fans of the game had realized just what was at stake on this final match day. Even the local newspapers were present and Katara had been subjected to the flashes of photo cameras. If Katara hadn't taken Librium earlier, she probably would have freaked out from all this unexpected attention, but now, she simply faced the crowd with a slightly bemused smile and allowed Sokka to drag her through the entrance and towards the stage where six Pai Sho boards had been set up in anticipation of the start of play.

Only one of these boards would have the attention of the spectators, and everyone in the hall knew that, nobody more acutely than the other contestants. Katara felt particularly touched when all the other players walked up to her to wish her good luck in her confrontation with Azula, even the other Fire Nation kids, Shoji Nomura, On Ji Takeda and Kei Lo, all expressing a wish to see Azula taken down a peg or two. Some of the kids were particularly vehement about their anti-Azula sentiment, which was not something that Katara personally agreed with and approved of. It wasn't that Katara hated Azula Nakamura. She barely even knew the other girl. From what Katara knew, Azula was arrogant and rude, enjoyed flaunting her perceived superiority, and just wasn't the kind of person Katara would want to socialize with. But Azula hadn't done anything to Katara personally, at least nothing to earn her hatred.

Katara had already taken her place at the Pai Sho board, waiting for the start of the game to be announced, when Azula arrived at the same time as always, exactly five minutes before the start of the game. The Fire Nation girl sat on the other side of the board, barely acknowledging Katara's presence as she quickly arranged her tiles, and then selected the accent tiles. As Katara had learned from studying Azula's previous games, Azula always chose one of each accent tiles, Rock, Knotweed, Boat and Wheel. This was the accepted canonical choice on the professional Pai Sho circuit, and Azula probably wanted to present herself as a very mature player. Having studied Azula's games, Katara had to admit that her opponent knew how to utilize all of the accent tiles well.

Boat and Wheel tiles were considered to be difficult to master, and as a result many of the junior players eschewed their use, instead going for double Rock and double Knotweed, as they were quite simple to deploy. Katara usually chose single Rock, double Knotweed, and then either Boat or Wheel depending on her opponent. It was a sophisticated enough approach that separated her from the average junior player and made her stand out from the crowd. However, on this occasion, Katara's strategy was different and she went and selected the simplistic choice of double Rock and double Knotweed. Azula's reaction to her choice didn't escape Katara, the other girl briefly frowning in annoyance. Katara smiled inwardly, feeling even better about her plan. Azula appeared almost insulted that Katara would simplify her game to what the Fire Nation girl considered a childish level.

Finally, the game began and the two girls began to develop their tiles in traditional patterns. It didn't take long before Azula went on the offensive. With her White Lotus blooming, Azula's Orchid traced threatening patterns on the board, but Katara defended well, managing to preserve her flower tiles. Confident that she had scattered Katara's flower tiles well enough, Azula began to work on creating harmonies, but she soon found herself bogged down by Katara's defensive strategies. This is where Katara had to cross her fingers in hopes that her plan would work. Going through Azula's games, they had noticed how the Fire Nation prodigy usually gained decisive advantage very early in the game and had never been seriously challenged in any of her contests. But what if Katara were to focus only on blocking Azula's harmonies without even thinking about forming her own, doing everything she could to frustrate Azula? Maybe some cracks would start to appear if only she could put Azula under a little bit of pressure.

The first sign of her plan working was when Azula began to take more time to consider her moves. Up until then, throughout the entire tournament, Azula had been producing her moves with the regularity of a metronome. Now, she was clearly slowing down and becoming frustrated at Katara's dogged and impenetrable defense. Whenever she tried to attack with the Orchid, Katara's tiles would skillfully retreat. Whenever Azula tried to plant and arrange new flower tiles, Katara used her Rocks and Knotweeds to stifle her further. Frustrated, Azula began to look uneasy, even nervous, and she did the only thing she could think of and that was to become even more aggressive in her approach. And that's when she made a mistake.

Azula moved her Orchid tile to threaten Katara's Rose, without realizing that upon its retreat, Katara's Rose tile now forked Azula's White Jade and Rhododendron. With her next move, Azula would not be able to protect both of her tiles. She was about to lose one of her crucial flower tiles, in what could very well be the decisive moment of the game. Azula spent an agonizingly long time on her next move. Katara subtly observed the facial expression of her opponent. She could swear that there was an almost panicked look in Azula's eyes. A couple of beads of perspiration had broken along the other girl's brow. The Fire Nation prodigy was losing control of the game and of her own discipline.

Eventually, after twenty agonizing minutes, Azula made her move, choosing to save her Rhododendron. Upon making her move, she pressed the button on the timing clock and then unexpectedly rose from her seat and walked off, entering the nearby bathroom. Azula's sudden retreat and the sight of Katara claiming the helpless White Jade tile sent the hall of spectators into raptures, causing the tournament referee to issue a rare call for silence.

Having hit the button of the timing clock, Katara began to wonder about Azula's behavior. She seemed to be taking a lot of time in the bathroom, which Katara found very odd. Of course, Azula's time was ticking down and Katara could simply wait for the clock to run out, but after about ten minutes of waiting, Katara began to feel a little anxious herself. It wasn't that she had to check up on Azula, but Katara couldn't help feeling a combination of worry and curiosity, and accompanied by the confused murmurs of the spectators, Katara also rose from her seat and walked up to the bathroom.

Upon entering the bathroom, Katara was faced with the slightly surprising sight of Azula standing in front of the large mirror, frantically reapplying her eyeliner. Katara blinked, unsure of what had happened. Had Azula been crying? That seemed almost impossible. Girls like Azula Nakamura didn't cry. Or did they?

"Uh… is everything alright?" Katara finally dared to ask, taking a step closer.

Azula ignored her as she quickly applied the finishing touches of her eyeliner. When the Fire Nation girl turned to face Katara, she once again looked as perfect as always and it was impossible to tell if she had been crying or not. The look she gave Katara was deeply scrutinizing, and not at all in a pleasant way. Katara couldn't quite put it into words or thoughts what it was about the way Azula stared her down, but it made her feel extremely conscious about her own appearance.

Katara was often told that she was a very pretty girl, even beautiful, and sometimes she even believed those words. She was aware that the clothes she had on were at least a couple of years behind the latest fashion, and Azula's penetrating gaze had a way of telling Katara how plain she looked in comparison, also reminding her about the social chasm between the two girls. Katara was well aware of it as she stared back at Azula, with her amazing red vinyl jacket, matching curved PVC dress and stylish red go-go boots. Azula wasn't the kind of girl who just followed the latest fashion trends. No, she was definitely a trendsetter.

The staring contest between them ended in a way that took Katara completely by surprise. Having made Katara feel like a lowly worm under the heel of her boot, Azula reached inside her red vinyl purse and pulled out a bunch of bills. "Two hundred fifty," Azula said disdainfully, holding the money out for Katara. "Together with the prize for second place that makes it five hundred, same as if you had won."

Katara had to do a double take at the unexpected gesture. At first, she couldn't believe what she was hearing. Was Azula really giving her money to throw a game? That was insane! If the tournament referees found out anything about this, Azula would be disqualified instantly, and perhaps even banned from participating for years to come. Why would she risk doing something so crazy?

Azula interpreted her silence the only way she could think of, turning to rummage further inside her purse and pulling out a few more bills. "Five hundred, plus the prize money for second place," she said, sounding both angry and anxious at the same time. "That's my final offer. Come on, just take it already! I know that a northern sea rat like you could really use the cash. Just look at you, it's obvious."

Katara angrily slapped Azula's extended hand aside, almost making her drop the bills. It was true, her family could have made good use of the money on offer, but no, Katara just couldn't do it. She valued her honesty and integrity too much. "What do you take me for?" she glared right back at the other girl. "You can't buy me off like that!"

"Don't try to pretend like you're somehow different from everyone else," Azula scoffed back at her. "Everyone has their price. Everyone can be bought."

"Well, you're wrong about that, Azula," Katara snapped heatedly. "Some of us have principles. Tell me, how many of your victories have you bought like this?" That was a low blow and Katara knew it. She had studied all of Azula's games, and she knew perfectly well that all of them had been completely legit wins. Still, Katara was fuming and she was looking to insult the other girl right back.

"What did you just say?" Azula spoke slowly, her voice low and dangerous. "You will take that back, immediately. How dare you accuse me of… do you even know who I am, you dirt-poor peasant?"

"A stuck-up bitch who needs to be taught a lesson she won't soon forget," Katara retorted, hands on her hips. Katara hadn't thought herself being able to stand up to someone like Azula Nakamura, and yet now that she was in this situation, the way Azula was acting truly made Katara's blood boil and gave her the necessary courage. "Fine, I know that you didn't buy off your other opponents. I said that only to insult you, just like you insulted me with your… offer. Which I would not accept even in you quadrupled it."

"You are making a big mistake," Azula said in a warning tone as she pocketed the money away.

"Actually, I'm doing you a favor, not making a mistake," Katara did not relent. "If I took your money and someone later found out, we'd both be banned for who knows how many years. You think you're good enough to beat me, Azula? Well, then get back to the Pai Sho table and show me what you've got."

"Fine, then! I'll destroy you!" Azula snarled, a dangerous glare in her eyes, but somehow, Katara could not help but feel as if the other girl's confidence had taken a knock despite her tough act.

After Azula had stormed out of the bathroom, Katara took a moment to check her appearance, adjusting her hair loops before also returning to the tournament hall and sitting down at the table. Azula had made her move, planting one of her remaining flower tiles. It was a confused and indecisive move, completely uncharacteristic of Azula Nakamura when she was at her best, and it made Katara smile inwardly as she sensed that victory was now very close.

In the end, Katara didn't even have to do much, because Azula did most of the work for her, starting to go for over the top aggressive moves that simply weren't there. She was utterly disintegrating before Katara's eyes, all bravado gone from her face, replaced with an expression that seemed like a mixture between fear and disbelief. Losing one tile after another, Azula still refused to give up, trying to persist with her doomed attack even after she no longer had enough flower tiles on the board to form a harmony ring.

It was only following a desperate stare from Katara that one of the tournament officials decided to step in, an uncomfortable expression on his face as he reached in to stop the timing clock before speaking calmly to Azula. "Miss Nakamura, please," the referee said. "The game is over. You don't have enough tiles to continue."

"I can still force a draw," Azula insisted stubbornly, glaring at the tournament official. What she claimed was impossible and Azula knew it, she just didn't want to admit it to herself. With so few tiles remaining, Katara was set to form a harmony ring in three moves.

"Young lady, I implore you to accept the result with the dignity we expect of someone as talented as you," the referee would not budge, holding Azula's angry stare.

At that moment, regardless of the way Azula had acted in the bathroom and despite of the hurtful things she had said, Katara felt a twinge of sympathy for the other girl. This was obviously a humiliating experience for her, and Azula seemed to be taking it very hard. Katara knew that in her place, many would have been smiling smugly about their hard-earned victory, but she was raised to be a very polite young woman. She resisted the temptation to rub it in, instead offering Azula the customary post-match handshake while managing to keep the satisfied smile off her face. However, Azula wouldn't even shake her hand. The Fire Nation girl simply rose from her seat and walked away, drawing gasps and shakes of the head at her rude and disrespectful behavior.

Still, Katara did not get the opportunity to wonder about Azula Nakamura and her weird issues much longer. As soon as she rose from the table, the spectators in the hall erupted in cheers and she took their applause with a polite bow, smiling demurely. Most of the other games were still ongoing, but her fellow competitors all as one swarmed her, taking a break from their own games to come over and congratulate the new World Junior Champion who had just defied all expectations, beating the odds-on favorite in a dramatic last round duel.

Yue was first on the scene to congratulate Katara, not limiting herself to a handshake or an encouraging clap on the shoulder. No, Yue excitedly pulled Katara into a full body hug, an embrace that lasted considerable time and made Katara feel rather light-headed and just a touch dazed. When Toph and Aang both embraced her afterwards, Katara barely acknowledged it, still lost in the sensations of Yue's incredibly soft and tender curves pressing tightly against her.

A few minutes of excitement later, the other competitors returned to finish their own games, while one of the tournament officials led Katara off the stage and into a smaller adjacent room where she was sat down at a table, handed a glass of water, and then made available for the press. Facing the three journalists with the photographers accompanying them and answering their questions, the enormity of what she had just achieved began to sink in for Katara. As the sedative she had taken the previous night started to wear off, Katara began to feel a tad anxious under all this attention, but with the interviewers being mostly nice and encouraging, and her still feeling elated from her victory, any possible panic attacks mercifully stayed away for the time being.

Apparently, according to one of the journalists, the last time this title hadn't been won by either a Fire Nation or an Earth Kingdom representative was exactly 50 years ago, when Pakku Karetak had scored a sensational victory. The journalists all appeared very interested to hear from Katara that Pakku had been something of a Pai Sho role model for her, and a reason why she had even picked up the game in the first place. Her grandmother Kanna had actually dated Pakku in their high school years, but he had eventually left her in favor of a professional Pai Sho career. Kanna hadn't begrudged him for his decision though, which was why there had been a Pai Sho board with all the tiles in the Enuaraq household when Katara was growing up. Her interest had truly blossomed into a serious hobby in her early school years. Katara was a very bright girl and tended to become bored in class, finishing her tasks well ahead of everyone else. Some of her teachers had been only happy to allow her to leave the class early and spend time in the school's small library, poring over what few books on Pai Sho there were, going over the games of the past greats and trying to learn from their experiences as much as she could.

Having extracted this story and much more information from Katara, the satisfied journalists eventually ran out of questions and Katara was again whisked away by the tournament's organizers, being led into a secluded space at the back of the stage and given time to prepare for the upcoming victory ceremony. There were only so many times she could check on her makeup or hair, however, and with nothing left to do but wait, Katara began to feel anxious again. Fortunately, one of the organizers was thoughtful enough to bring her a cup of tea and some sandwiches, at which point Katara realized that she hadn't eaten since early in the morning and was actually starving.

Katara was still busy finishing off the second sandwich, when someone else was led backstage, none other than her good friend Aang. "Oh… does this mean you won?" Katara asked, having quickly swallowed a chunk of bread.

"I did!" Aang cheered, doing a little fist pump. It looked as if he expected Katara to hug him, but fortunately she was holding the half-eaten sandwich which provided her with a way out. "My goodness, that was tough, though! Toph and Teo both won their games quickly, so they were both on 7 points, and so I needed to win. Just barely squeaked it out in the end…"

"Kori played a good game, did she?" Katara asked, smiling.

"Yeah… she hasn't done much at all during the entire tournament, and then right at the very end she suddenly turns it on, crazy," Aang shook his head, letting out a big sigh of relief. He then sat down next to Katara, grabbing one of the remaining sandwiches.

"Do you know if we'll have to wait for that victory ceremony much longer?" Katara wondered. "I'm getting more and more nervous. Also, I want to call home and tell dad and grandma everything that happened."

"Well, they were just waiting for my and Kori's game to finish," Aang grinned happily. "I mean, they needed to know what name to put on that big check for the third place. Also, I think they're still looking for Azula. She kind of needs to be up there on the podium with us."

"She hasn't reappeared?" Katara asked. "It's just crazy how she stormed off like that."

"Yeah, it's really rude, everyone's talking about it," Aang nodded. "But I'm sure they'll find her soon."

"I hope so, she's just making things worse for herself, acting like that," Katara nodded as the two kids settled in more comfortably to wait until they would be called upon. After a wait of about five or six minutes, one of the organizers appeared once again to fetch both Katara and Aang, leading them back onstage where a large podium had been assembled. Looking around the gathered crowd, Katara managed to spot Sokka's blue shirt, her brother giving her a massive grin and a big thumbs up, Katara smiling and waving at him in return.

"There's Azula, with her father," Aang suddenly nodded to their left. "Gosh, he looks really angry."

Katara glanced over at where Aang had nodded towards, noticing the young girl in red vinyl clothes standing next to a tall man in his mid-forties, long haired and with a perfectly groomed goatee. The expression in his dark eyes was not particularly kind. In fact, the man seemed to be glaring daggers at anyone who dared to look his way. Also, the way he kept his hand on his daughter's shoulder did not seem to be in any way comforting. Whether his firm grip was meant to stop Azula from running away, Katara was not sure, but it did not seem at all comfortable.

The expression on Azula's face, however, made Katara deeply concerned. Azula had always had a pale complexion of pristine alabaster, but now she looked worryingly white as a sheet. The Fire Nation girl did not just appear devastated about her loss, no, for some reason she appeared absolutely terrified, as if she was being led to her execution. Even though Katara was still very angry at Azula for her attitude, all the insults and the attempted bribe, the Water Tribe girl began to wonder what exactly was up with Azula's strange behavior. Was it perhaps something about the reaction of her father that terrified Azula? Surely Ozai Nakamura could not be that displeased about Azula's showing. Second place was a great achievement, and this was the first game that Azula had lost in the time span of a year and a half since she had started taking part in tournament play. Surely it was an achievement to be proud of?

Katara did not get the chance to dwell upon it all for too long, as shortly afterwards the head of the organizing committee took the microphone and began to speak. It was one of those boring speeches that Katara had already learned to tune out, the organizers thanking the sponsors, the spectators, the participants, everyone and their little dog, in a grandiose gesture that took far more time than it honestly ought to and seemed to bore everyone in attendance. Finally, came the time to honor the prizewinners of the tournament, and at least that served to perk up the audience.

"Placing third, with 7.5 points out of 11, Air Nation's very own… Aang Jetsun!" the boring spokesperson tried to announce dramatically, but his lack of charisma rather doomed the effort. Still, that didn't seem to put a damper on Aang's spirits as he cheerfully stepped onto the lowest step of the podium and with a flourish bowed to the crowds. The audience responded with a raucous cheer, many of the spectators aware of what a big deal this was for the tiny Air Nation, the applause persisting as the bronze medal was placed around Aang's neck and a giant fake award presentation check was pressed into his arms for the boy to hold proudly.

"Coming in second place, with the impressive score of 10 points out of 11, the pride of the Fire Nation… Azula Nakamura!" the spokesperson called out. The crowd's response was decidedly tempered. Much of it had to do with the political situation of Yu Dao. Over the past decades, Yu Dao and its surrounding territories had changed hands between the Fire Nation and the Earth Kingdom on at least four different occasions. It was the proverbial buffer state between two superpowers of the world, and as such, it had the unfortunate fate of being the staging ground for military operations between the two great nations who thus far had avoided attacking each other directly. As a result of these frequent changes, the people of Yu Dao were split among three primary factions, two groups of radicals who campaigned for Yu Dao and its surrounding lands being incorporated in either of the two great powers, and the third, largest group, advocating for Yu Dao's independence. The spectators seemed to be split along these factions, which meant that Azula did get some excited cheers from at least a part of the crowd.

Glancing at the Fire Nation girl nearby, Katara suddenly realized that she hadn't made a step towards the podium, showing no interest to do so. It was only when her father bent down to whisper something in Azula's ear, that she reacted, flinching as she started to walk towards the podium with nervous steps, almost stumbling as she climbed on the step reserved for the runner up. She truly looked like she was being led to the gallows, and the silver medal hanging around her neck was a noose to hang her from.

"Finally, the very deserving winner of this year… and it's none other than Katara Enuaraq of the Water Tribes, also with highly impressive 10 points out of 11! Let's hear it for the new U15 World Junior Champion!" the announcer cried loudly, and Katara quickly took her place on the highest step of the pedestal. The occasion felt overwhelming and she couldn't do much else but grin like a fool at the adoring crowds, the smile never leaving her face when the gold medal was hung around her neck and a giant check for 500 yuan pressed in her hands. When a massive bouquet of flowers was also thrust at her moments later, Katara carefully laid the check down at her feet before accepting the bouquet, continuing to wave at the crowd.

Katara was still getting high on the cheers of the spectators, when she became aware of Azula climbing down from the pedestal and turning to leave. It was a clear and disrespectful breach of protocol that at first made Katara quite angry with the Fire Nation girl. However, when Katara saw how Azula's father forcefully yanked on her arm, causing her to stumble as she struggled to keep pace, Ozai quickly dragging his daughter away from the scene, Katara's anger faded immediately.

Everyone always spoke about how Azula was born to be lucky. Somehow, merely from observing these few exchanges between Azula and her father, the famous Ozai Nakamura, suggested to Katara that perhaps Azula wasn't quite as lucky as those envious of her seemed to think.

Chapter Text

Come the evening of the final day of the tournament, and it was time for the event that many among the competitors and their friends and family had been looking forward to for weeks: the official tournament afterparty. After a couple of weeks of stressful competition, nothing felt better than to let off some steam during a wild party. Of course, considering the age of the kids, most of them had someone older accompanying them, whether it was their parents, older siblings, or as in the case of Toph Beifong, a pair of towering bodyguards whom she had affectionately dubbed The Hippo and The Boulder. Despite their considerable size, the two men somehow managed to remain discreet, allowing Toph and her friends to forget about their constant watchful presence.

Sokka was supposed to be Katara's guardian, making sure that she wouldn't get into any trouble. However, it seemed that on this instance, Sokka was determined to cause trouble himself. It was not long after they had arrived at the student's club at the University of Yu Dao where the afterparty was being thrown, when Katara discovered that Sokka had smuggled in a couple of bottles of vodka with him. Now he was having a lot of fun offering his fellow partygoers to improve their fizzy drinks with a generous slosh of vodka, but fortunately most of the other kids were too sensible to accept the offer.

While Katara enjoyed the occasional party as much as the next girl, this was really one of those times when she wished having some extra cash to spend on a new outfit. Katara supposed that she could have used some of the prize money she had won, but… she couldn't bring herself to do something she considered inherently selfish. She wanted to bring the money back to her family. There were so many other ways to put these funds to better use. The autumn storms had damaged the roof of their modest two storied house, and it was still leaking in places despite their father's best attempts to fix it. Their old fridge that her parents had bought before Katara had even been born was slowly starting to suffer more and more malfunctions, often deciding to defrost on its own. It clearly required a replacement. How could Katara justify spending money on new and expensive clothes when there was such a dire need for the money she had just won?

And regardless of whether it was by now three of four years behind the latest fashion trends, Katara did love her silvery-blue bubble dress and the way it made her look, with its golden sash tightly squeezing her waistline. She had already been complimented on her looks several times this evening, mostly by girls who were wearing far more fashionable clothes, such as Yue, looking absolutely stunning in her platform shoes, bell-bottom jeans and the risqué white baby-doll blouse which showed off quite a bit of skin for a fourteen-year-old girl. Yue was also the only one who had allowed Sokka to improve her lemonade with vodka, making good use of the fact that her father Arnook Taqqiq trusted his daughter enough not to send a keeper with her to Yu Dao.

And if there was someone who appeared particularly enchanted by Katara's appearance, it was certainly young Aang Jetsun. Ever since the first chords of music had reverberated across the hall, he was there, in his pristine grey suit, gallantly asking Katara for a dance and looking intent not to allow her to sit down the entire evening. When Katara had excused herself more than half an hour later, insisting that her feet were starting to hurt, she wasn't even lying or searching for an excuse, she really did feel winded. A slightly disappointed Aang had then been forced to ask Toph to dance with him, having sensed that another girl desperate for his attentions was approaching him, a young Earth Kingdom hopeful by the name of Meng Li.

"You guys not dancing?" Katara asked, taking a breather sitting at the table with Sokka and Yue.

"We've been dancing a little bit, but there's no rush," Yue replied. "We have all night. Our train to Agna Qel'a leaves late in the afternoon."

"Exactly, that's why we can allow ourselves to… indulge," Sokka grinned, boldly flashing the bottle of vodka at his sister, not caring about being spotted by the nearby parental or guardian figures. Truth be told, nobody seemed to be watching the kids too closely. The few parents present had arranged a little party for themselves and alcohol seemed to be flowing freely at their table. They clearly didn't seem to care about playing their roles of guardians for the rest of the evening. "You should have some, sis," Sokka added, moving his hand with the bottle towards Katara's glass of fizzy drink.

"Don't be an idiot, Sokka," Katara quickly withdrew her glass, glaring at her brother. She didn't exactly want to explain the dangers of mixing Librium with alcohol to her brother. She hadn't experienced the effects herself, but the doctors had been severe with their warnings and Katara was the kind of girl who most of the time did as she was told.

"Just trying to help," Sokka withdrew the bottle and raised his hands apologetically. "You still look kinda stressed."

"He's right, Katara," Yue nodded perceptively, looking at her with those ocean-blue eyes that always threatened to drown Katara in their depths. "What's getting you down, girl?"

"Oh, nothing… Aang's just being a bit much," Katara sighed. "I really don't want to be mean, he's very sweet, but… you know."

"You just need to find someone else to dance with so that Aang gets left with Toph or Meng," Sokka advised her.

"I don't exactly see many other options out there, Sokka," Katara grumbled at her brother. "In case you hadn't noticed, the girls at this party outnumber the boys two to one." Of course, Katara would have preferred to dance with a girl, a very particular girl who was sitting within an arm's reach of her. But such things just weren't supposed to be spoken aloud. Nobody could know that about her.

"Let's go over the possibilities, shall we?" Yue smiled teasingly as she looked across the hall. "Shoji and On Ji are dating, so he's out, I guess. Kori has a steady boyfriend, good luck prying him away from her. Kei Lo would have been an option, but it seems that Joo Dee has seized him already. You could probably lure him away if you wanted… Joo Dee has nothing on you, girl," Yue winked at her, making Katara blush.

"Goodness, no, I'm not even going to try, Joo Dee is one scary girl," Katara shuddered. "I can't handle it when she gives me one of those uncomfortably long stares with those weird eyes of hers… yikes!"

"I know," Yue chuckled. "Well, Teo Guyuk would have been a great choice, but…"

"Yeah, it's really unfair for something like that to happen to such a nice boy," Katara sighed, looking over at the paraplegic Earth Nation boy, bound to his wheelchair. At least he seemed to be happy and having a great time, surrounded by Aang, Toph and Meng. Unfortunately, when Katara looked their way, Aang caught her gaze and seemed to interpret it as an invitation to dance, and he began to walk towards their table.

"Oh damn… am I desperate enough to ask my own brother to dance with me?" Katara asked, looking at Sokka.

"Forget about it, I'm not dancing with you, Kat," Sokka shrugged, not looking too sympathetic about her plight. "Not when I have a hot piece of girlfriend like this one," he added with a chuckle, pulling Yue closer for a kiss, but she turned away at the last moment, leaving him to kiss her cheek.

"You really can be an insensitive pig at times, Sokka," Yue admonished her hapless looking boyfriend. "Your sister has just won a major tournament. You shouldn't refuse her anything, especially not tonight. This is supposed to be Katara's big night."

"Well… sorry, but I'm still not dancing with my sister," Sokka insisted. "That's just sad."

"In that case, I guess it falls on me to rescue your sister," Yue decided boldly, getting up to her feet and reaching out with her hand towards Katara. "Come on, Kat. Let's hit the dance floor and leave these boys to stew. Let's show how we don't need them to have a great time."

Katara could scarcely believe her ears, but she didn't need to be told twice. Quick as lightning, she rose to accept Yue's hand and full of giggles the two of them walked right by the confused and slightly stunned looking Aang. The Air Nation boy looked after them wide-eyed, as if not understanding what had just happened.

"Thanks, Yue," Katara breathed out gratefully as they joined the few other couples on the dance floor, starting to twist to the incredibly catchy tune of 'Fun Fun Fun' by The Ember Island Boys.

"Come on, sing with me!" Yue cried out as they enthusiastically shook their hips to the melody. "A lotta guys try to catch her, but she leads them on a wild goose chase now! And she'll have fun fun fun 'til her daddy takes the T-bird away!" they both sang from the top of their lungs, nearly collapsing in fits of giggles when the music finally stopped playing. It resumed almost without a pause, this time with 'Twist and Shout' by The Buggles and Yue pulled Katara into an even wilder dance, both girls laughing like mad.

Back at the table, Sokka was nursing his drink, not feeling particularly happy about having been left alone with Aang. While Katara liked the young Air Nation boy, Sokka wasn't Aang's greatest fan. Sokka found the kid just a bit too clingy for his liking. "Can't believe we've both been dumped by our girlfriends, eh, Sokka?" Aang asked, grinning at him.

Sokka frowned. Aang's cheerfulness was rubbing him the wrong way. "You sure Katara's your girlfriend?" he asked. "I don't know if she thinks that."

"But… we've been dancing all evening, and she seemed to be enjoying herself. Did she say something about not being into me?" Aang asked anxiously. His face had fallen considerably, and it suddenly made Sokka feel really bad. Katara definitely would not appreciate him upsetting Aang. Besides, setting the kid straight was her job, not his.

"No, no…" Sokka said hastily, trying to backtrack. "It's just a feeling I sometimes get, Aang. Girls Katara's age are usually into older guys, so… I'm just trying to warn you, I guess."

"Oh! Well, thank you for your concern, Sokka, but I honestly think you're wrong," Aang replied enthusiastically. "Besides, you'll find that I'm really persistent," he added, looking at Katara and Yue having a whale of a time on the dance floor. "If Katara wants me to be more mature, I guess I'll just become more mature." Sokka sighed at the other boy's determined words. He didn't envy Katara at that moment. Aang seemed like someone who would be difficult to let down gently.

Meanwhile, on the dance floor, Katara and Yue were showing no intentions to stop. "You can't hurry love, no, you just have to wait!" they both sang excitedly along with The Supremes. "She said love don't come easy, it's a game of give and take!" All Katara could think of was how amazing Yue's arm felt around her waist as they spun each other around in circles to the popular tune.

When the next song began, however, Katara immediately recognized the 'Unchained Melody', coming to a halt. "I think this is where we should stop," she reluctantly told Yue. "This is the sort of song you should dance to with your boyfriend."

"Don't be ridiculous, Kat," Yue grinned at her, wicked and irrepressible. She stepped up closer to Katara, taking her hand and wrapping her other arm around Katara's waist, pulling the other girl close. "Now, put your hand around my shoulders and just slow-dance with me. Sokka's been annoying me all evening. Let him just roast in envy for a bit, it'll do him a world of good."

"If… if you're sure…" Katara managed, even if she knew that she was fighting a losing battle, eventually doing as she was told. With her hand around Yue's shoulders, their faces now came very close together, and Katara became painfully aware of just how thin Yue's baby-doll blouse actually was. The proximity of the other girl's body was driving Katara absolutely wild. I've hungered, hungered for your touch. The lyrics of the song described her feelings perfectly.

"Can I just tell you how pretty you are tonight, Kat?" Yue leaned even closer, whispering in her ear. "I love the dress, by the way. It fits you perfectly."

"Th-thanks," Katara stammered at the compliment. "You always look good, Yue…"

"Flatterer," Yue chuckled, sounding pleased. "Seriously, though… I'm already jealous of the guy who will eventually get to be with you. Like… he better appreciate how awesome you are."

I don't want some guy. I want you. The words hovered at the tip of Katara's tongue. If she had allowed Sokka to add vodka to her drink earlier, maybe she would have felt brave enough to say them. Now, she instead swallowed the words, never to voice them. Yue loved her brother and she was the sweetest girl Katara knew. Yue was just trying to make Katara feel good. "Thanks, Yue… you're the most amazing friend I could ever hope for," Katara exclaimed heatedly. With so many overwhelming and conflicting emotions tearing at her, she was having a hard time stopping herself from crying. One part of her hoped for the song to never end, while the other part wanted it to end sooner because it was tearing her heart apart.

Eventually, the song did end, and the two girls parted. Still, before heading back to rejoin Aang and Sokka at the table, Yue pulled Katara into a firm hug before releasing her, and only then did the two girls returned to sit down again.

"Babe, if you had danced like that with some guy, right now I'd be jealously punching his lights out," Sokka said, possessively pulling Yue closer once she had sat down at his side. "Good thing it was just my sister."

Katara laughed awkwardly, picking up her drink and taking a generous swig. All this exercise was making her very thirsty. Unfortunately, when the liquid entered her mouth, the cherry lemonade tasted nothing like it ought to taste, instead leaving a burning sensation in Katara's mouth. She instantly spat out her drink, turning to glare at Sokka. "I can't believe it!" she hissed at her brother. "You are such an asshole!"

"What did you do?" Yue turned towards her boyfriend. "Don't tell me you put that vile vodka in Katara's drink."

"I told you she wouldn't find it funny, Sokka," Aang shook his head disapprovingly.

"Well, you could have warned me too, you know!" Katara turned on Aang, the Air Nation boy cringing. "Ugh, boys… you're always so childish."

"I'm forced to agree with Katara, here," Yue nodded in agreement.

Any further arguing was interrupted by Toph returning to the table, followed by Kori Morishita and her boyfriend. "Hey, guys," the local Yu Dao girl spoke, smiling at them. "Toph says that you have a way to make your drinks more interesting… care to share?" she asked hopefully.

"Sure thing," Sokka grinned, whipping out the bottle of vodka and pouring generously in the glasses of Kori and her boyfriend. "Come back for a refill if you want more later. I'm stuck here with some lame squares who look down on fun times. Well, with the exception of Yue, obviously."

"Cheers… Sokka, right?" Kori smiled at Katara's brother. She lingered at the table, despite her boyfriend looking eager to move on. "So… Azula Nakamura didn't show. I figured she wouldn't dare, not after that humiliation you inflicted on her," the girl from Yu Dao grinned at Katara.

"Thanks, but I'm not sure that's the reason why she's not here," Katara replied. "Remember, she won last year and didn't attend the after-party either. Maybe she just doesn't like to party."

"I think it's more that her daddy doesn't want his baby girl hanging out with the wrong crowd, which we obviously are in the eyes of Ozai Nakamura," Yue scoffed. "When you think yourself so far above the rest, you don't even stop to think how disrespectful her absence comes off to the rest of us."

"I've heard a thing or two about this Ozai Nakamura guy from chatty hotel staff," Sokka added. "Some of them were waggling their tongues about how he gets quite physical with her. If you know what I mean…"

"I'm not sure I do," Katara frowned at her brother. "Do you think he would have given her some kind of a punishment for losing a single game in two years? That's crazy!"

"Well, if the rumors can be trusted then it's not just some mild punishment, it's a downright violent beating," Sokka gulped uncomfortably. "But the rumors probably aren't true. The hotel staff probably make up this stuff out of boredom."

"I hope not," Toph said. "That bitch deserves everything she gets and more. She really gets on my nerves." Kori nodded at that, seemingly agreeing with every word.

"Wait, are you serious?" Katara blinked, unable to believe what she was hearing. "Nobody deserves to be severely beaten up by their own parent! That's messed up!"

"Nah, I stand by what I said," Toph shrugged. "There's a good reason why we all hate Azula Nakamura. Let her daddy teach his girl a lesson, I say."

"You can't mean that! What would you do if your own parents-…" Katara began, but then cut herself off, realizing that arguing with Toph would not be a fruitful endeavor. She was only twelve and simply wasn't emotionally mature to realize why this situation was totally messed up. Besides, she probably felt a little jealous towards Katara regarding Aang, and would be determined to continue arguing just for the sake of disagreeing with Katara. "Eh, never mind. I still think that if Ozai Nakamura is beating his daughter, that's just sick. If it's true, I hope someone does something to stop it."

"I agree that it's sick and twisted, Kat, but I don't know what could be done to stop him," Yue replied, giving her a sympathetic stare. "There aren't many people around who Ozai Nakamura doesn't have in his pocket. I've heard that even the Fire Nation courts are stacked with his pals."

"Ugh, that just makes my blood boil. I wish you hadn't told us about these rumors, Sokka," Katara sighed at her brother. "Now I won't be able to stop thinking about it and wondering if maybe Azula is the way she is because of how Ozai treats her."

"Or maybe she was just born bad," Sokka shrugged. He didn't seem particularly torn up by the whole thing. The only ones appearing sympathetic were Yue and Aang.

"Kat, I agree that it's awful if that is happening to her, but there's nothing we can do about it," Yue reminded her. "So, try not to think about it. Remember, it's your big night, so cheer up and celebrate!"

"Speaking of which, back to the dance floor we go," Sokka said, rising to his feet and pulling Yue up with him.

"Shall we, Katara?" Aang looked at her hopefully, offering Katara his hand.

"I'm sorry, Aang, but I'm really not in the mood after hearing something like that," Katara sighed, shaking her head.

"Well, Katara might not be in the mood for dancing, but I certainly am, so come on Twinkletoes," Toph interjected, grabbing Aang by the lapels of his grey suit and dragging him off, her straightforward approach making Katara smile.

Still, the smile didn't linger on Katara's lips for too long. Despite rather disliking Azula Nakamura on a personal level, knowing that she was a potential victim of child abuse, really put a damper on Katara's festive mood in the wake of her amazing victory.

The following morning, a slightly sleepy Katara arrived in the hotel's lobby and proceeded straight to the receptionist's desk for a check-out. Seeing that someone else was ahead of her, going through the formalities with the receptionist, Katara politely stood aside and waited. She tried not to stare, but there was something odd about this person who was currently checking out, obviously a younger woman, but wearing an out of fashion long coat typically worn by older women. She also wore a thick scarf wrapped around her head and… shades? Why was this woman wearing shades indoors, and on an overcast day?

"That will be all, Miss Nakamura. I hope you had a pleasant stay at our hotel," the receptionist spoke, her words startling Katara. That was Azula? Why was she all wrapped up like some old crone instead of being dressed as the always impeccable and trendy herself? Was she still feeling humiliated by her loss and this was some sort of a disguise? That would have been ridiculous.

Azula muttered something incomprehensible in response to the receptionist and then turned to walk away, right past Katara without even acknowledging the Water Tribe girl. Katara, on her part, just stood there, shocked to see that Azula was walking with a very severe limp. Having overcome her initial shock, Katara ran right after Azula, catching up with the other girl.

"Hey… is everything alright?" Katara asked, feeling concerned. Obviously, Azula loathed her, especially after that humiliating loss, but Katara wasn't the kind of person to just ignore someone who was suffering and Azula seemed to be in a bad way.

Unfortunately, Azula didn't seem to be in the mood for receiving her sympathy. "Mind your own business and crawl back to whatever icy hole you emerged from," Azula snarled at her, not bothering to stop.

"Come on, you're obviously hurt," Katara wouldn't relent. "What happened?"

"I slipped in the shower, alright? Now get out of my way!" Azula exclaimed angrily, physically shoving Katara backwards. The Water Tribe girl just about managed to retain her balance, but the pause gave Azula the opportunity to leave the lobby and exit the hotel. Katara watched with growing unease as the hobbling girl climbed into a black Imperial Crown limo, a square-jawed brute of a man holding the car doors open for Azula. Within moments, she was gone, leaving Katara standing there, wringing her hands in distress.

Feeling helpless and dejected, Katara walked back to the receptionist's desk. The girl behind the desk also seemed to be quite upset by what she had witnessed. "Any parent who does that to their child should roast in hell," the receptionist quietly muttered under her breath before turning to address Katara. "Ah, Miss Enuaraq, time to check out? We were delighted to host this year's champion in our hotel!"

"Thanks… yes, time to check out and go home," Katara replied with a nod. She continued to stare at the receptionist, a girl of about twenty years of age. She really looked very uncomfortable about what she had just witnessed. "I know it's not my business, miss, but if you know what happened to Azula Nakamura, you should report it."

The girl turned to stare at Katara as if the Water Tribe girl had lost her mind. Then she let out a shrill, distressed sounding laugh. "I hate that man and what he's obviously doing to his daughter, but even if I happened to know something, I would surely know to keep my mouth shut," the receptionist spoke in hushed tones. "Bad things happen to those who talk too much about Ozai Nakamura. Just read up about that divorce case between him and his wife, Miss Enuaraq. Most witnesses decided not to show up to testify."

"But we're not in the Fire Nation," Katara argued. "Yu Dao is a part of the Earth Kingdom. Surely he has no power here."

"Oh, you would be surprised," the receptionist rolled her eyes. "Mayor Morishita has many common business interests with Ozai Nakamura. And the police chief of Yu Dao is the brother-in-law of Mayor Morishita. Now put the two and two together."

Katara frowned, realizing what the receptionist had meant. "But… it's just not right," she declared helplessly.

"That's the real world for you," the receptionist gave her a look full of sympathy and compassion. "I'm afraid that you will often find it a cold and uncaring place, Miss Enuaraq."

Chapter Text

Azula stood in the stables of her father's estate on Sozin's Island, using a brush to comb the mane of one of her two horses, a light brown mare she had named Goldflake. Having just finished a match, she was still wearing her full polo uniform, the helmet, knee-guards and elbow pads all included, as well as the white trousers and a red jersey sporting the number one on its back. Following Azula's failure to defend her World Junior Championship title in Pai Sho, her father had cut off nearly all of her social interactions, and playing polo with her father and his rich and influential friends was pretty much her only remaining option for socializing this summer. Of course, following the tournament her father had kept her out of the limelight not only as a punishment, but also because he didn't want everyone to talk about him violently beating his daughter. It was a beating which Azula felt she thoroughly deserved, after letting her father down like that.

Not being allowed to go back to Li and Lo's Boarding School for distinguished young Fire Nation ladies to finish the semester had been a blow, but it hadn't felt devastating now that both Mai and Ty Lee were no longer attending the school. Most of the other girls at school were Azula's sycophants, but Mai and Ty Lee… well, they had been almost like friends to Azula. She hadn't really thought about them being friends, though, not until they had lost their connection. And perhaps they had been more than just friends in Ty Lee's case, but… well, it wasn't worth dwelling upon. The main thing was, she had finished her semester in the care of private tutors, and her father had already warned Azula that she would not be returning to Li and Lo's in the autumn, continuing to work with her private tutors. Perhaps if she played well at the Fire Nation qualifiers for the U18 World Junior Championship in late October, Ozai would consider letting Azula rejoin her peers at Li and Lo's, but until then she was to remain in isolation as a form of punishment.

Of course, things weren't all bad and there were definitely worse places to be stuck at than Sozin's Island. Her father had bought the entire island some ten years ago, turning it into a private resort for the family, his friends and business partners. It had everything, a private dock for yachts, a golf course, a polo stadium, a dressage arena and many other amenities, not to mention the splendorous three-story mansion itself, secluded by palm trees at the center of the island. Staying on Sozin's Island allowed Azula to spend time with her horses, Goldflake and Innocence, which was one of her favorite pastimes after Pai Sho. In fact, even up to the age of twelve, Azula couldn't decide between becoming a professional Pai Sho player or a dressage rider. In the end, she had chosen Pai Sho, largely because she reasoned that her father would approve of her decision, himself being a grandmaster and the reigning Pai Sho World Champion. Now, Azula at times wondered whether she had made the right choice. Her father didn't know much about dressage, but he knew everything about Pai Sho. He was merciless when it came to pointing out every single mistake that she made at the Pai Sho board.

Following her humiliating loss to Katara Enuaraq, Azula was absolutely determined to never allow a repeat of such a pathetic performance on her part. She was happy to be pushed very hard by her father whenever they practiced together. Ozai had made it very clear that a reoccurrence of such an embarrassing defeat would have dire consequences. While the bruising and the black eye had faded within a week and a half, Azula had been walking with a limp for about a month before her ankle healed fully. But that particular injury had been her own fault. She had hurt herself while trying to escape her father's punishment, falling and badly dislocating her ankle and straining her Achilles tendon. Why did she even try to flee from a beating she so richly deserved? She could tolerate a few backhand slaps to the face and having her backside whipped mercilessly with her father's leather belt. So what if it left her crying through the several sleepless nights that followed? She just needed to toughen up. Who else did she have looking out for her other than her father? There was nobody else. Ozai's love was tough but fair, she would be the first one to acknowledge it.

And so, over the past few months Azula had been working extra hard to make sure that she would never again disappoint her father like that. She studied as many of the recent games as she could find, especially her defeat to Katara, trying to learn from her mistakes. It was a painstaking and arduous process, but Azula was absolutely determined to squeeze out every little advantage she could during these summer months while her competitors were probably partying and wasting their time like stupid teenagers used to do. In autumn, she would be competing against girls and boys older than her, sixteen and seventeen years of age, far more experienced players than her. Azula knew that she would need to be at her best to progress to the next stage of the tournament. This summer, her father was taking an increased interest in her training and fortunately, Ozai seemed to be pleased with her progress so far.

When her father wasn't away to take part in a Pai Sho tournament or on one of his frequent business trips that could take him all over the world, they would often play in the evenings, sitting down in his large study at the Sozin's Island mansion. Azula had never managed to last more than thirty moves against her father, but she felt that lately she was becoming a little better at resisting her father's attacking style of play. Her father often received visitors on the island, and among them were many skilled Pai Sho players. Ozai never missed an opportunity to pit Azula against his guests, testing her, claiming that facing more diverse opponents would help her improve. Ozai's right hand man at the Nakamura Industries, Zhao Sakamoto, was a frequent guest at the estate and Azula was asked to face him on many occasions. She utterly hated playing Zhao because his style was as slippery as was his personality. He always managed to lure her into one trap or another, and it always made Ozai displeased with her.

Another powerful Pai Sho player who visited occasionally was Long Feng, an influential politician and power broker from Ba Sing Se. Azula had played his daughter Joo Dee in tournaments before, on both occasions trashing the other girl soundly. Those victories had felt particularly sweet because Joo Dee was under the false assumption that the shared business interests between their fathers meant that there was also some kind of connection between her and Azula. An irritated Azula had made it very clear to Joo Dee that she did not consider the other girl to be her friend. In fact, she considered the other girl unfit to even tie her bootlaces. As far as playing Long Feng, Azula did rather well against the man. She had actually managed to escape defeat in one of their games, a fierce contest in which she had tricked Long Feng into a clever exchange of tiles which had led to an unavoidable draw. Her father had been very proud of her following that game, while Long Feng was left walking around for days with a particularly sour expression on his face.

"Ah, Azula," the girl was suddenly interrupted from the reverie of brushing her horse's mane by a man's voice nearby. She looked up, noticing none other than Zhao Sakamoto, also still wearing his full polo uniform, white pants and the black jersey of the opposing team, number three on Zhao's back. "Your father was wondering where you had disappeared to," Zhao remarked casually, smiling at her.

"Is he looking for me?" Azula asked, aware that she sounded nervous.

"No, I don't believe so, don't worry," Zhao continued to smile. "I must congratulate you on a great game earlier, Azula. I wish your father wouldn't always have you on Team Red. I could do with a number one like you." Number one was basically the attacker of the polo team, and was the position usually assigned to the youngest and least experienced player. That didn't mean the position did not require skill, however, and Azula was a very skilled polo player, despite being by far the youngest on either team.

"I don't mean to slight you, Mr. Sakamoto, but I prefer playing with my father," Azula replied politely. It was definitely true, although Azula sometimes wondered if perhaps playing on the opposing team would be easier on her. At least then she wouldn't have to face her father's wrath if she were to let her team down.

"And Ozai is clearly unwilling to let you out of his sights. Not that I can blame him… you are blossoming into an exceptionally beautiful young woman, Azula," Zhao said, his gaze lingering on her. "In fact, given how you look in that polo uniform, many would say that you already are an exceptionally beautiful young woman."

Azula blushed, unsure of how to react to Zhao's words. A part of her enjoyed the compliment because it wasn't something she heard often. Nobody dared to say something like that to the heir of Ozai Nakamura. However, there was something about the way Zhao acted that made Azula feel just a little weird. She would turn fifteen in month and a half, and she didn't think that older men were supposed to say such things to fourteen-year-old girls. And then there was the fact that Zhao's much younger wife had died rather unexpectedly a few years ago. Azula was aware that there were a lot of dark rumors about what exactly had happened, despite her father always slapping down such talk about his right-hand man.

"I don't think my father would approve of you saying things like that to me, Mr. Sakamoto," Azula replied eventually.

"Your father is very protective of you, and I can understand him completely," Zhao nodded, the smile never leaving his lips. "You are wise to rely on him, of course. However, it always helps to have more friends, and I'd love to be your friend, Azula. You know what they say… don't keep all of your eggs in one basket. You can never be too sure of what the future might bring."

There was something ominous about Zhao's words, despite them being said with a smile. Azula really didn't like where this conversation was going, starting to become nervous. "I'll keep that in mind, Mr. Sakamoto," she forced herself to reply politely. "But now I should go and find my father," Azula added, not wanting to spend any more time conversing with Zhao.

"You're still wearing your polo uniform," Zhao reminded her. "Shouldn't you change before going back to the estate?"

"Yes, I… I'll do that soon," Azula stuttered, cursing herself for not having changed straight away while the other players were still doing their mandatory post-match posturing. Despite having separate changing rooms, Azula still didn't want to change with Zhao lurking about. Their conversation had made it all the weirder. "Goldflake needs some more attention, though," she said quickly, hoping that Zhao would just go away.

"Well, she is a beauty of a horse," Zhao nodded, walking past her. "I'll see you back at the estate later. Ozai and I have come up with a couple of curious Pai Sho puzzles for you to solve."

"I can't wait, Mr. Sakamoto," Azula forced herself to smile politely, wincing inwardly. She much preferred a straight up honest game of Pai Sho to all those convoluted puzzles that Zhao and Ozai often came up to confound her with. It seemed that she was in for an evening full of frustrations.

A few hours later, Azula had managed to safely get through the dinner at the estate. It was as boring an affair as always, and she had to fight very hard not to let her boredom show because that would have surely displeased her father. Azula knew for certain that some of her father's guests had children of similar age to hers, and it surely was no coincidence that they were never allowed to travel with their parents to Sozin's Island. The adult children and toddlers were apparently fine, but if they were anywhere near Azula's age then Ozai didn't want them anywhere near his daughter. The upside of this decision was that Long Feng never brought Joo Dee with him, and Azula would have rather spent an evening reading the Fire Nation tax code than interact with Joo Dee.

Ever since she had been barred from attending Li and Lo's boarding school Azula had slowly grown to accept loneliness as her new normal. Certainly, she had plenty of distractions available to her regardless at which of the Nakamura estates she was staying. Obviously, Sozin's Island offered the most to do because it had Goldflake and Innocence, her beloved horses. The vast manor on the outskirts of Caldera City was where she had spent most of her childhood, back when her mother and brother still lived with them. Azula didn't like indulging in memories of Ursa and Zuko, and consequently, she no longer enjoyed spending her time at the manor, although she did miss its vast library with its countless history books about the empires of old, a persisting fancy of hers. And then there was the smaller Caldera City estate, a posh mansion that Ozai had bought when Azula had started to attend Li and Lo's. Sure, Li and Lo's was a boarding school, but Ozai was never going to allow his daughter to spend her nights with the other girls at the school. Buying an entire mansion nearby may have seemed excessive to many, but not for someone with the riches of Ozai Nakamura. Azula knew that her father owned vast properties all around the world, many of which she had never even heard about.

Her time spent at the smaller Caldera City estate was probably the happiest Azula had been over the past four years, ever since their family had been torn apart by those nasty divorce proceedings. While attending Li and Lo's school, she had come to befriend two girls whose company her father approved of. A year older Mai Syun was the daughter of a man named Ukano who was in charge of Nakamura Industries research and development labs, while Ty Lee Watanabe, a girl of Azula's age, was the daughter of one of her father's most trusted financial advisors. Despite both girls having some annoying traits, such as Mai often acting like a sarcastic know-it-all, and Ty Lee being almost obnoxiously subservient, Azula had become very fond of the two girls. Unfortunately, their friendship would not last.

As the three of them had grown closer, Azula began to use her father's frequent absences by inviting Mai and Ty Lee to stay with her at the estate. She didn't think that her father would mind, and Ozai probably wouldn't have batted an eyelid, if not for another recent development between the girls. There was one particular topic that was by far the most popular among the attendees of a girls-only boarding school, and that topic was, obviously, the boys. It was also a topic that simply would not be tolerated in Azula's life until her father had decided otherwise. Naturally, this only made Azula more curious about boys. Ty Lee and Mai did not face such restrictions from their families, and the year older Mai actually had some dating experience. Azula and Ty Lee were desperate for any and all boy-related information that they could get out of Mai, although in retrospect, Azula now believed that Ty Lee's interest had been entirely faked. Ty Lee had been interested in something else.

Azula couldn't remember how exactly it had all started. She only knew that they were both thirteen when at some point Ty Lee had suggested that they practice certain things in anticipation of being able to date actual boys. And that's how it had started, with some chaste kisses exchanged tenderly during one of the many sleepovers at Azula's Caldera estate. They had been much too young to move beyond kissing, but months later the kisses had become far more serious, accompanied by plenty of petting that left them both breathless.

It took Azula some time, but eventually she began to heavily suspect that Ty Lee wasn't into these activities because she was getting ready to date boys. No… it was pretty clear that Ty Lee was firmly into her. And honestly, Azula didn't mind that. In fact, she felt rather flattered. She did feel something towards Ty Lee, even if she hadn't yet figured out what it was exactly. Azula was definitely enjoying herself a great deal with Ty Lee, but she still felt as if she wanted to see what dating boys was all about. She already had an idea that being with the right girl could feel seriously amazing, but she wanted to know if maybe being with the right boy could be even better.

However, it was on Azula's fourteenth birthday when the disaster had struck. Mai and Ty Lee were staying at the estate for the birthday party, and later in the evening, Azula and Ty Lee had become careless and overconfident. They had asked Mai to stand guard for them, but the older girl had probably become tired and annoyed with this new duty of hers, and had simply abandoned her post. That was when Ozai had stumbled upon them, Azula pinning Ty Lee down on the bed, her hands under Ty Lee's shirt as she sat astride the other girl, both of them sighing quietly into each other's mouths.

Ty Lee and Mai had been sent packing from the estate immediately, and the following day they had also been kicked out from Li and Lo's boarding school, Ty Lee for her inappropriate behavior and Mai for covering and failing to report it. In addition, Ozai had also dismissed Ty Lee's father, something that Azula felt terribly guilty for to this very day. As for Mai's family, they got off lighter. At least Ukano didn't lose his job at the research labs. And as for Azula… well, her final fourteenth birthday present had been the beating of a lifetime that had left her bedridden for days. She still remembered the shocked face of the doctor who had come to tend to her injuries, a man utterly loyal to Ozai, but still unable to suppress the horror at what he was seeing.

In the months following the incident, Azula somehow managed to avoid thinking too much about it all, largely succeeding in forgetting both Ty Lee and Mai. However, in her current isolation, the thoughts of Ty Lee in particular became very persistent on Azula's mind. Azula was still thinking back on some of their more enjoyable sleepovers as she made her way over to her father's study, where Ozai and Zhao awaited her for more lessons in humility through Pai Sho.

As expected, the Pai Sho board had already been set up when she arrived, Ozai beckoning Azula over and ordering her to sit down at the board. Azula peered at the placement of tiles on the board, her brow furrowing as she tried to make sense of the strategy of both sides. "What is your first impression?" Ozai asked impatiently.

"Whoever is playing with the light tiles is clearly winning," Azula replied, earning herself a brief chuckle from Zhao and a disappointed frown from her father.

"First impressions can be deceiving, Azula," Ozai told her firmly. "Find a way for the dark tiles to win in seven moves. You have fifteen minutes while Zhao and I step outside for a smoke." With Zhao having poured them both a glass of whiskey, the two men went out on the balcony and lit up their cigarettes, starting to discuss something in hushed voices, while Azula remained hunched over the Pai Sho board, trying to figure out the puzzle while at the same time trying to ignore the distracting stench of tobacco drifting in from the balcony.

Minutes passed and Azula was failing to find the solution. The position of the light tiles appeared solid and impenetrable. It was the kind of frustratingly impenetrable bastion that she would expect Katara Enuaraq to build just to frustrate her. Hmm… perhaps that was the point of this particular puzzle, to show Azula how even the most seemingly impenetrable position might have some structural weaknesses. Azula began to reassess, trying to look for more unconventional ways to break down the defenses of her imaginary opponent, refusing to worry about the fact that the time allocated by her father was slowly running out.

Having pushed herself to think outside the box, Azula finally saw a possible solution. Being several flower tiles down already, she hadn't at first even considered the possibility that a way to victory lay in sacrificing even more tiles, but that was indeed the path to victory. Moving her Rhododendron to where it could be taken by her opponent's Chrysanthemum was the answer. The Rhododendron was a clever bait because it couldn't be taken, not without seriously compromising her opponent's position. But Azula's Rhododendron was also threatening the opponent's White Jade, which was now forced to retreat to a less active square on the board.

Still, while this move had improved Azula's position, it did not outright win the game. There had to be more to this puzzle and she needed to figure it out quickly while her father and Zhao worked their way through their cigarettes and whisky. Perhaps if she kept up the pressure with her Rhododendron and continued to offer it as a poisoned sacrifice that couldn't actually be accepted…

"What do you know, Ozai, I think she's actually figuring it out," Zhao sounded impressed as the two men returned to the room, startling Azula as she was still deep in thought.

"She hasn't figured it out completely, but it's a good start," Ozai admitted grudgingly. "Alright, reset back to the starting position. Zhao, take the light tiles. Azula, show us if you have figured it out or not."

As Zhao sat down on the opposite side of the Pai Sho board, Azula felt reasonably confident that she had figured out the correct course of action, even if some doubts remained. Still, as she began to execute her plan to force Zhao to accept the Rhododendron sacrifice, the position of her opponent began to shake and crumble. Within five moves, she had pushed Zhao's harmony forming tiles back to the edges of the board and created the threat of forming a harmony ring herself. The only way for Zhao to prevent the loss was to sacrifice a couple of his tiles, but after that exchange Azula still found herself in the superior position.

"Hmm, well done indeed," Ozai admitted grudgingly, appearing impressed.

"Ozai, I think she's ready to take the U18's by the storm," Zhao nodded in agreement.

"Well, let's not get ahead of ourselves, shall we?" Ozai frowned.

"I'm ready, father," Azula insisted, hating how she failed to sound as confident as she wanted to.

"You'll need to qualify first, remember," Ozai reminded her. "It's not going to be a formality. We've talked about this before, Azula. Playing the older kids will not be a walk in the park. This is what all the training has been for, daughter."

"I understand, father," Azula nodded obediently. She truly did understand what her father was trying to teach her. Azula's single-minded attacking style of play was well suited for success against the younger players who could rarely withstand her aggressive assault, but even on that level it had already failed against the defensive strategies of Katara Enuaraq. If Azula was going to succeed at the next level and become a pro player some day in the future, her game had to evolve and she had to become an overall more rounded player. She had to master the defensive aspects of the game and how to navigate the pitfalls of the endgame. So far, she had made good progress in her training, and to Azula's great relief, her father appeared satisfied.

Azula's personal goals for the upcoming year of competition were simple. Despite her father's warnings, she did not for a moment doubt her ability to qualify for the main championship event. And then, once there, she would meet her brother Zuko at the Pai Sho board for the first time since their early childhood. Zuko would be there as the defending U18 champion, and when Ozai had learned about his estranged son's victory, he had been absolutely mad with anger, once again taking his frustrations out on Azula by giving her a particularly severe hiding. It all just made Azula loathe her brother and her mother even more than she already did. It was their fault that she was being punished by her father. Zuko and Ursa had ruined the family, tearing it apart by her mother instigating the divorce proceedings. They had said all those terrible things about Ozai in the courtroom, but Azula knew perfectly well what loathsome hypocrites both Ursa and Zuko were. She couldn't wait to get back at them the only way she could, by crushing and humiliating Zuko at the Pai Sho board.

"Clear the board and step aside, Zhao," Ozai ordered firmly. "It's been a while since I've given you an honest test, Azula. Let's see how long you can hold out against me after all the training we've done."

"Of course, father," Azula said. She did feel as if the training had improved her game by leaps and bounds, and as a result she was not as nervous about facing Ozai as she had been before. Azula had firmly decided that she was done disappointing her father.

Chapter Text

Katara's return home after her victory in Yu Dao had been a confusing and overwhelming experience. Three months later it felt like something she had merely dreamed about, similar to one of her Librium visions. Still, the gold medal framed on the wall of her room was very real, and it reminded Katara that no, it hadn't been a dream at all. Her title of a World Junior Champion was very real.

Stepping off the train at Agna Qel'a, the unprepared Katara had walked straight into a large crowd of cheering fans, the press, and even some of the local politicians and celebrities, trying to capitalize on her sudden fame. Someone had even gotten a hold of grandmaster Pakku Karetak, bringing him out to meet with Katara in a shared press conference. While Pakku had been complimentary of her victory when speaking with the press, the two of them had exchanged a few words afterwards, and Katara had been left disappointed by the old grandmaster's attitude. He seemed to think that Katara's achievement did not stand up to his own, even if it was literally the exact same title and tournament. Pakku was claiming that the competition fifty years ago was far more serious than what Katara had to face this year. All in all, in private Katara found Pakku to be a curt and dismissive curmudgeon who apparently found it impossible to be supportive or encouraging.

Katara probably would have been dragged through more and more interviews in Agna Qel'a, and she was slowly starting to freak out from all the scrutiny and attention. She felt intensely grateful when her father finally managed to elbow his way through the gathered crowd, tearing into the bystanders for not leaving his teenage daughter well alone. As Hakoda protectively escorted Katara through the crowd with Sokka's help, he had a few choice words for his son, blaming Sokka for his inability to shield his sister from all this unhealthy attention. Katara just kept quiet, glad for her father's presence and the way it made her feel safe. Minutes later, she and Sokka were squeezing tight in the front passenger seat of the family's muddy old Powell truck, their luggage tossed in the cargo space at the back as they made the forty-five mile long drive northwest from Agna Qel'a towards their coastal home village of Cape Kuruk.

Of course, there had also been a welcoming ceremony back at Cape Kuruk, but Katara found it much easier to endure than the crowds of Agna Qel'a. First of all, Cape Kuruk had a population of under two thousand, and they were scattered over a reasonably large area, the actual village being just a couple dozen of mostly public buildings. Secondly, Katara knew most of the Cape Kuruk locals and she was not in any way intimidated by them, unlike by the strangers of Yu Dao or Agna Qel'a. As such, she actually enjoyed being the village-level celebrity… at least for the couple of weeks while it lasted. The people of Cape Kuruk led harsh lives and had little time for distractions. Everyone soon returned to the realities of their lives and Katara's remarkable achievement was rarely brought up again.

As for Katara herself, she and Sokka returned to school the next day following their return, so their lives immediately fell back into their old routine. Most of her fellow students were hugely impressed by Katara's achievement, swarming the newly crowned champion and asking her for autographs. There were some who seemed less impressed, but because of Sokka's constant presence, Katara didn't hear many negative comments. She had expected some backlash borne of envy. She wasn't the most popular girl in school, there were quite a few kids who considered her to be arrogant and full of herself, thinking that she was flaunting her smarts when she was allowed to skip classes in favor of practicing Pai Sho. Still, within a month, even the kids at school seemed to forget all about Katara being the World Junior Champion at Pai Sho, going back to treating her as they always had. Life returned to normal, which was exactly what Katara had hoped for.

But those closest to Katara, her family, would never forget what she had achieved. Both Hakoda and Kanna had showered the girl with their praises, letting her know how happy she had made them. The words of how proud her mother would have been to see her on the top step of the podium had reduced Katara to a flood of happy tears. The prize money she had brought back from Yu Dao was also put to good use. Hakoda had immediately called a pair of workers to fix the leaking roof, and then they had all gone out to choose a brand-new fridge to replace the old and ornery one which often created puddles in their kitchen.

Before departing for the tournament in Yu Dao, Katara had been starting to worry about their father. Hakoda appeared to be slowly being ground down by his exhausting job on the oil rig, and whenever he came home for his days off, he usually would just lay about, seemingly having no energy for anything. But now, inspired by the turn of their fortunes, he became rejuvenated and started busying himself with all sorts of necessary and neglected repair work around the house. Together with Sokka, they had completely rebuilt the fence surrounding the house, and were now working on a new doghouse for the family Saint Bernard, Naga.

Looking towards the upcoming year of competition, however, Katara was becoming a little concerned. In autumn, she would be facing kids a year and two years older in the Water Tribe qualification tournament for the main World Championship event, with only the top two places going through. Being the reigning U15 World Junior Champion, Katara would also have a target painted on her back, meaning that the other kids would be extra motivated to defeat her. Katara was painfully aware that she needed to improve her game if she wanted to repeat her success. Her stifling defensive game was hugely effective against the kids of her age and younger, but being a one trick pony would not work against the older, more experienced kids. She needed to become a more diverse player, and that meant improving the attacking aspect of her game to complement her dogged defensive strategies.

This was where living in a remote village like Cape Kuruk worked against Katara. There was nobody around she could turn to for advice, having to rely on studying Pai Sho books and magazines, learning from the games of others. However, the reality of the situation was that if she was serious about becoming a pro player in the future, then Katara needed a good coach. The choice seemed obvious at first glance. Pakku Karetak was the best Pai Sho player in the history of the Water Tribes. With another generational talent like Katara coming up, surely Pakku would be motivated to take her under his wing and make sure that the Water Tribes would continue to be represented on the professional circuit following his eventual retirement.

So, Katara had swallowed her personal dislike of Pakku, deciding to call the grandmaster and ask him to consider tutoring her. To say that Pakku's response had disappointed her would be an understatement, as Katara had been completely shocked by his stunning rejection. Pakku firmly refused to even consider taking Katara under his wing, claiming that despite her successes at junior level, training her would be a complete waste of his time because women had no future on professional Pai Sho circuit. Pakku pointed out that over the past twenty years, not a single woman had managed to qualify for the World Championship Finals for professional players, and no woman had ever been ranked among the ten best Pai Sho professionals. Pakku claimed that he had no interest whatsoever to spend many years training Katara only to watch her then get married to some random guy and start spawning one kid after another, essentially ruining her Pai Sho career. No, according to Pakku, women were just too flighty and emotionally unstable to seriously commit to a career path that demanded so much hard work and sacrifice. Pakku had never taken on tutoring a girl, and he wasn't going to start now.

Katara had gotten off the phone absolutely fuming. She had then dressed and went out, deep into the nearby pine forest, where she had launched into a very uncharacteristic angry and expletive laden tirade aimed at grandmaster Pakku Karetak, Katara swearing to one day prove him wrong and force him to eat his words. Having returned to the house, Katara had then told Kanna all about Pakku's disgusting reaction, and how he had done her grandmother a huge service by leaving her for Pai Sho.

As months passed, Katara continued to learn and improve, mostly on her own, but also with some help from Yue. With Sokka and Yue being on the phone every day, Katara always took over from Sokka when he was done talking with his girlfriend. Katara lived for these conversations and she could never get enough of hearing Yue's voice on the phone. They spoke about a lot of things that girls their age found interesting, mostly music and fashion, as well as of Pai Sho. They always had several long-distance games running, announcing their moves over the phone and then continuing the following day. Katara was delighted that it gave them a reason to always remain in touch. Their practice games sharpened their skills and allowed them both to improve by leaps and bounds.

Come the last days of June, Katara was feeling positively giddy in anticipation of the event she had waited for the entire year. In a few days, Hakoda would drive her to Agna Qel'a where she would board a train to Ba Sing Se, and from there, take the bus down to Serpent's Lake and the estate of Iroh Nakamura. Four weeks of July at Uncle Iroh's lakeside property for his summer Pai Sho camp in the company of her best friends… Katara was so excited to leave that she could barely control herself. She missed everyone so much, Aang, Toph, but especially Yue, despite talking to her almost every day. But most importantly… since Sokka was not a Pai Sho player, he would not be attending the camp and the two girls had already agreed to share a room, something that made Katara's heart flutter with excitement.

Not that Katara had some romantic plans or anything of that sort. She was smitten with Yue, painfully hard, but Katara would not do anything such as trying to steal Yue away from her brother. Yue wasn't interested in girls anyway, she was clearly into boys, and one boy in particular. Still, was it so terrible of Katara to want Yue all to herself, even for a short while, even if nothing romantic could ever happen between them? Sokka would be spending the August in Agna Qel'a and would see Yue every day. Surely it was alright if Katara could have Yue to herself for the month of July. As far as Katara was concerned, Sokka had no right to feel envious.

Finally, the morning of departure came and with Hakoda driving the old Powell pickup, they made their way to Agna Qel'a where Katara was safely tucked on the train heading for Ba Sing Se. It was a lengthy journey, taking more than a day, and at the end of the trip, Katara then spent a confusing hour at the Ba Sing Se bus station, trying to find the right bus to take her to Serpent's Lake. Still, despite all the challenges, in the late afternoon of her second day of traveling, Katara stood by the gates of Iroh Nakamura's lakeside estate, watching the gate guard looking for her name on the guest list, eventually finding it and crossing it out, welcoming her inside with a warm smile.

As Katara walked the gravel path leading up to the estate, she could already hear the excited cries and cheering of the other kids. It seemed like most of them had already arrived, the usual gaggle of close to two dozen. It wasn't long before her approach to the estate was noticed and soon enough a group of kids were running towards her. Aang was at the head of the group, her Air Nation friend greeting her with a firm hug.

"Katara! You're finally here!" Aang cheered excitedly, reluctant to let go of her waist.

It was Toph who eventually pried the Air Nation boy away from Katara. "Hi there, roomie!" Despite appearing annoyed with Aang, Toph sounded happy to see Katara.

"Roomie?" Katara blinked, looking over to where Yue stood a little aside, the white-haired girl giving her an apologetic shrug.

"Yep! The first thing I did upon arriving was to pick out the nicest room for the two of us!" Toph chirped excitedly while Katara desperately tried to hide her disappointment.

"Alright, Toph… that's great," Katara managed. "I guess you'll have to show me the room so I can get rid of this luggage," she pointed at her suitcase.

"Oh, let me, let me!" Aang offered, grabbing the suitcase and starting to drag it towards the house, as always eager to help. "I'll bring it right up to your and Toph's room, Katara! It's right next to mine!"

"That's fantastic, Aang, thank you so much," Katara called after the boy as Yue finally walked up to her and wrapped her arms around Katara's waist, the two girls sharing a tight hug that Katara was desperate to extend for as long as she could.

"Sorry, girl," Yue whispered softly in her ear. "Toph had already made arrangements when I arrived. She wouldn't hear about swapping with me."

"Of course…" Katara whispered back to the other girl. "But we can still have fun, right?"

"You better believe it, babe," Yue spoke softly as she broke the embrace, parting with a promising wink. "This is going to be the best summer camp yet, you'll see."

"Damn right, now that Katara is here, things might finally pick up!" Toph declared excitedly.

"Was I the last to arrive?" Katara asked, earning herself nods from both Yue and Toph. "So, let's see who else is here this year," she said, looking at the vast gardens of the estate. A bunch of Pai Sho boards had been placed directly on the neatly trimmed lawn, next to a pristine blue pond. Some of the kids were busy playing while another group had surrounded Uncle Iroh nearby, listening to the old grandmaster as he was busy demonstrating something on the Pai Sho board. Surrounded by the other kids as he was, Iroh had still noticed Katara's arrival, smiling and waving at her.

"Mostly the same crowd as last year," Toph shrugged. "And that's just fine by me."

Looking around the garden, Katara saw several of her recent opponents at the U15 World Championships, Meng Li, Kori Morishita and Teo Guyuk. Then there were some of the older kids whom Katara would most likely meet next spring at the U18 finals, should she manage to qualify for the main event. She could see Ghashiun al-Alawi and Haru Tamang playing near the pond. Ghashiun was a boy from the region of Si Wong Desert, a place that usually didn't produce many Pai Sho greats, so he was considered something of a strange outlier. Haru came from the west coast of the Earth Kingdom, and was probably the nicest of the older kids Katara had interacted with. Unlike the others, Haru never looked down on the younger kids and was always helpful and respectful. A little to the side, Katara could see a dark-haired youth with a horrible burn scar covering the left side of his face, Iroh's nephew and Azula's brother, Zuko Nakamura, also the reigning U18 champion.

Katara's interactions with Zuko Nakamura so far hadn't been very pleasant at all. He always came off to her as very harsh and rude, but in a different way to his sister. Azula always acted as if she was better than everyone else. Zuko always acted as if the world was conspiring against him and he seemed to have a massive chip on his shoulder, always behaving like he had something to prove to everyone. Maybe there was something about Zuko that Katara simply did not understand, or else it didn't make sense to her that a sweet old man like Uncle Iroh would be so fond and protective of his annoying nephew. Maybe there was a decent human being under that mask of an irritable and brusque young man after all. It seemed as if someone else other than Iroh also thought so, as Zuko was holding the hand of a somewhat plain, but still reasonably pretty looking Earth Kingdom girl. Said girl occasionally even burst into laughter which felt particularly odd to Katara because Zuko was probably the least funny guy she had ever come across.

"Who's that with Zuko Nakamura?" Katara asked Yue.

"That's his girlfriend, Jin," Yue replied with a grin. "Yes, I know, I was shocked as well…"

"Is she one of the players?" Katara wondered.

"Nope," Toph said. "Which doesn't make sense, if you ask me. I thought this was a camp only for Pai Sho players."

"Well… she's supposedly helping Uncle Iroh run the camp," Yue shrugged. "He's even paying her. I haven't seen her do any actual work, though, unless you count her smooching Zuko as work. Come to think of it… that must be it. If I had to kiss Zuko Nakamura, I'd want to be paid, too." Katara burst into giggles at Yue's slightly mean comment, the two of them sharing amused glances and then walking over to the garden to join the other kids.

Katara found herself warmly welcomed by the others and it didn't take her long at all to start feeling like home. This was so much better than being surrounded by her peers at school. She didn't really have anyone in Cape Kuruk who shared her interests, and most of the kids her age were a little too immature for her liking. Being at Uncle Iroh's camp was the exact opposite. They were all united by their love for Pai Sho, and despite them all being fierce competitors when tournament play began, away from the competition most of them got on very well. They were surrounded by an air of maturity and mutual respect for each other.

Quite a few of the kids immediately wanted to test Katara at the Pai Sho board, eager to have a go at the reigning U15 champion, but the hour was getting late and Iroh soon called for everyone to gather at the estate's dining hall for supper. Having eaten, the kids split up in their own little groups, gravitating towards their closest friends and spending the rest of the evening just doing whatever they felt like. Uncle Iroh was quite lax when it came to discipline and the only rule he had was that everyone should be in their rooms by midnight at the latest. It wasn't a difficult rule to obey, and as Katara understood, it was rarely broken. Those who failed to follow what few rules Iroh had, simply did not get invited back the following year, and considering how important this camp was for most of the kids, nobody wanted to risk not getting their invitation.

Katara had spent most of the evening after supper sitting out on the terrace and chatting with Aang, Toph and Yue, but when the two younger kids went inside to grab their sweaters, Yue used the moment to drag Katara away, down the path leading away from the estate and down to the Serpent's Lake. A plank-way was stretching well into the lake, everyone's favorite swimming spot on hot afternoons. Yue and Katara ran down the length of the plank-way, sitting down at the very end, letting their feet hang over the edge, soles almost reaching the still water beneath them.

"Again, I'm sorry about the room, Kat," Yue said, placing her arm around Katara's shoulders. Katara felt all tingly from the light contact alone, almost forgetting to breathe. "I know we were both looking forward to sharing."

"Well… it's alright, I guess," Katara admitted. Having Yue's arm on her shoulder did make her feel much better about the whole thing. "It would have been awesome to just chat away long into the night, you know?"

"Yeah, we could have done all sorts of fun stuff," Yue echoed her thoughts. "Still, it's going to be an amazing month, especially now that you're here."

"Exactly," Katara nodded firmly. "Hmm, do you have some plans for us already?"

"I might have some ideas, yes," Yue said teasingly, still keeping her arm wrapped around Katara's shoulders. "But I suspect I'll have to compete for your company."

"Mhm, yes… I don't want to ignore Toph and Aang. I've been looking forward to spending time with them as well. But mostly with you, obviously," Katara amended quickly.

"Oh, I didn't mean just them," Yue chuckled. She sounded amused. "Someone was paying a lot of attention to you during supper. Don't tell me you didn't notice?"

"What? No, I totally didn't notice." Because I was so busy looking at you. "Who was it?"

"Haru Tamang. He's definitely a little sweet on you, girl," Yue grinned.

"Oh no… he's nice, but I don't want this!" Katara sighed.

"Are you sure? He really is quite nice. Maybe you should give him a chance. It would solve your Aang problem, too," Yue teased.

"Yue, please!" Katara exclaimed. She felt a little annoyed. "I really don't want to deal with boys at the camp. I thought that this could be, you know… our month."

"Sure… let's make this our month, I'm totally down with that," Yue replied. "But Aang is always going to be there, you know."

"Eh, Aang doesn't count," Katara shrugged. It was a mean thing to say, but Yue's lilting laughter had a way of preventing her from feeling guilty. She found herself sharing the other girl's laughter, their voices carrying across the clear and still waters of the lake.

It was already getting close to midnight when the two girls became aware of the lateness of the hour, realizing that it was time to get up and head back to the estate. The sky was already pitch black, but the warm orange light of the sodium lamps illuminated their path back to the estate. Sneaking through the estate garden, listening to sounds of chirping crickets, felt particularly romantic in the evening, and Katara was just about to boldly reach for Yue's hand, when a smaller figure suddenly stepped out from behind the bushes, startling them both.

"Katara!" She immediately recognized Aang's voice, whispering at them. "Can I speak with you?"

Katara opened her mouth to speak, but Yue beat her to it. "I'll leave you two alone," she said, sounding amused. "Goodnight, Kat, I'll see you in the morning," she said, leaning in and kissing Katara on the cheek before dashing off towards the steps leading up to the estate.

"Yes, Aang, what is it?" Katara asked, quickly shaking off the disappointment of Yue's departure.

"Check out what I have, Kat," Aang said mysteriously. Katara suddenly heard the familiar sound of a match being lit and Aang brought the burning matchstick to light the cigarette in his mouth. "I also got this," he added, pulling what looked like a beer bottle from the back pocket of his baggy pants.

"Aang!" Katara exclaimed, feeling shocked. Without even thinking about what she was doing, the Water Tribe girl stepped forth and slapped the cigarette right out of Aang's mouth. The stunned Air Nation boy watched the cigarette land in the dew-laden grass and go out, immediately becoming soggy. "How dare you abuse Uncle Iroh's hospitality this way? You know the rules! No booze, no cigarettes, and most definitely no drugs!"

While those definitely were the rules, Katara was well aware that they were not universally obeyed, especially by some of the older kids. Ghashiun always had a pack of cigs he was willing to share. And when it came to Zuko Nakamura, Katara was sure of having seen him quite inebriated on a few occasions. While Iroh was probably disappointed with his nephew, he wasn't going to kick him out.

When Aang was still standing there shocked, failing to speak up, Katara continued to admonish him. "What's gotten into you, Aang? This isn't like you at all!" she exclaimed. Katara then instantly felt horrified when tears appeared at the corners of Aang's eyes. "Oh, Aang… just please, tell me why you did something like that?"

"I just…" Aang began to explain, swallowing the tears that were threatening to escape. "Sokka said that you liked more mature boys, and… then I asked the older boys around the camp what I could do to appear more mature to impress a girl I liked…"

"Did they honestly tell you to impress a girl by buying cigarettes and beer?" Katara sighed. Sometimes Aang was much too trusting. It was the way of his people, but unfortunately, it made the rest of the world view people of the Air Nation as naïve dreamers. "Who exactly told you that?"

"Umm, it was Zuko Nakamura," Aang sighed. He looked utterly dejected.

"Of course! I should have words with that jerk!" Katara fumed, then turning back towards Aang, full of sympathy for the boy. "Aang, please understand that you don't have to do something like that to impress me. I'm already incredibly impressed by you. You're one of my best friends, you know that, right?"

"Yes, sure, but…" Aang stammered. This was clearly about more than friendship, but Katara was determined not to allow him to make an open declaration of his feelings.

"Aang, I can't give you anything but my fiercest and most loyal friendship," Katara said earnestly. "Can't that be enough for us both? It means the world to me, and I hope it means the same to you."

"Oh… of course," Aang nodded quickly. He probably was deeply upset and disappointed, but he seemed to be handling it reasonably well. "You're an amazing friend, Katara. I'd be a fool to turn away from that."

"I'm so glad to hear it, Aang," Katara smiled, opening her arms for the boy. "Hug?"

"Always," Aang replied, eagerly accepting the embrace. They parted a brief while later, walking up the estate steps in silence, but Katara found her steps lighter, even if she knew that Aang was probably saddened in the wake of their conversation. Still, it seemed that she had managed to dissuade Aang from his romantic intentions towards her without hurting the boy too much, and it gave Katara a sense of relief. She could certainly do with fewer romantic entanglements in her life.

Next chapter: We remain at Uncle Iroh's Pai Sho summer camp, where Katara has to deal with more romantic entanglements! Also, Katara decides to approach Zuko with inquiries about his sister. It doesn't go well…

Chapter Text

The next couple of weeks flew right by Katara as she was having the time of her life. Despite not being able to share a room with Yue, they still had plenty of fun and misadventure together, often staying up past midnight and having to be very stealthy to avoid getting in trouble with Uncle Iroh. Toph and Aang were frequent presences during their free time away from Pai Sho practice sessions, and the four of them had a whale of a time hanging out together. Katara was glad to see that Aang didn't appear overly upset by her soft rejection, although to Katara's slight disappointment, he hadn't made a move towards Toph, something that the Earth Kingdom girl still hoped for.

Uncle Iroh made sure to organize plenty of activities for them away from the Pai Sho boards, whether it was a spectacular boat cruise around the Serpent's Lake or a day trip to the nearby metropolis of Ba Sing Se, the Walled City. It was during their visit to the zoo at Ba Sing Se when Haru Tamang had made his move, approaching Katara with some earnest compliments about her growing skill at Pai Sho, as well as about her enchanting looks, before asking her out on a date.

It had proved very hard for Katara to turn him down, and even as she did so, Katara was busy arguing with herself, trying to convince herself that her life would be so much easier if she could just force herself to date a sweet, caring guy like Haru. It would save her from so many problems in the future. She still hadn't come out to her family and Katara was dreading the day she would have to do so. The thought of her father and grandmother being upset and disappointed with her was difficult to bear. And what would Sokka think? He'd probably start to think of her as a rival for Yue's affections, and she genuinely wasn't trying to be a rival. She just wanted to bask in the warmth of the sun that was Yue, at least for a short while.

And of course, dating Haru while not really liking him in that way and still thirsting after Yue, would have been very unfair towards Haru. He was too nice and thoughtful to be used that way. Katara didn't want to be good at manipulating other people. She didn't want to manipulate anyone. What she wanted the most was to be allowed to simply be herself, but… the times were what they were. She was probably doomed to either remain single or end up in a loveless marriage with some guy, just to avert the rumors of her queerness.

However, these romantic entanglements involving Haru would appear insignificant when compared with what occurred at the start of their third week at Uncle Iroh's Pai Sho camp. One morning, Katara noticed Yue slipping away from the breakfast table before she had even finished eating. It made Katara feel concerned because the previous evening she had been looking for Yue after supper, unable to find the other girl anywhere. In fact, Katara had intended to ask Yue about her odd absence, but she had just slipped away again before Katara had even had the chance to ask.

Puzzled, Katara quickly finished her breakfast and made some excuses to Toph and Aang who looked eager to follow her. Katara then walked out of the estate, wondering where Yue might have gone off to. The estate's gardens were quite vast and good for hiding, if one was inclined to do so. Then there was the path down to the lake, but the water was still cold at this early hour, so Katara didn't believe that Yue would have gone for an early swim. At a loss, Katara wandered down the gravel path leading away from the estate, then freezing when she came up to the main gate. Yue was there, leaning over the gate, busy smooching with someone on the other side of the barrier.

With her heart thundering in her chest, Katara walked up to the pair, determined to find out what was going on and with whom exactly Yue was cheating on her brother. "Hey!" she called out sharply, causing Yue to part from… her brother? "S-Sokka?" Katara gasped, incredulous. "What… what the hell are you doing here?"

"Oh, wow… you sound really happy to see me, sis," Sokka rolled his eyes at her, looking too smug and amused for Katara's liking.

"Never mind that!" Katara hissed at him, hands on her hips. "Unless I'm mistaken, you're still supposed to be in Cape Kuruk! Does dad and Gran-Gran know that you're here?"

"Well… I might have told them that I was leaving early for Agna Qel'a," Sokka shrugged, not looking particularly worried. "There was a phone call from the restaurant," her brother continued, making expressive air quotes. "It seems that they needed me in Agna Qel'a a couple of weeks early." What Sokka referred to was his summer job of bussing tables in some fast-food dive in the Water Tribe capital city. Most of the tips he earned went into paying for the cheap hostel he was staying at, so the financial gain was miniscule, but according to their father, this was all about getting some work experience. According to Sokka, this was all about being closer to Yue.

"Is this one of your hare-brained schemes, Sokka?" Katara could not force herself to calm down. "How did you actually make it here? Where are you staying? You can't come in, you know that, don't you?"

"Yes, I know that, Katara," Sokka sighed at her. "Also, you've heard about hitchhiking, right? It's not so hard to find some nice people who will happily give you a ride. And I'm staying at a hippie commune nearby. They're really chill about me just showing up and deciding to stick around for a couple of weeks. Also, they have free food."

"This is idiotic!" Katara declared angrily, turning around and storming off. "I'm calling dad right now."

"Wait! Katara, please… wait up!" it was actually Yue who quickly caught up with her, Sokka remaining outside the gate, looking anxious. "Kat, please… can we talk about this? Please?" the other girl put her hand on Katara's shoulder, stopping Katara in her tracks. Yue pulled her towards a secluded bench, in the shadow of some thuja trees.

Katara reluctantly sat down next to Yue on the bench, feeling so upset that she could barely speak, almost starting to hyperventilate. "You knew he was coming!" Katara exclaimed accusingly. Fortunately, they had made it far enough from the gate to be outside of Sokka's earshot. "You know Sokka was coming, and you didn't tell me!"

"I'm sorry, Kat. I had a feeling you would be upset, and… I just hate the thought of upsetting you," Yue whispered, pressing closer to her. It instantly became that much harder to remain angry at the other girl. It also made Katara curse her own weakness when it came to anything related to Yue. "But yes, I knew. I snuck into Iroh's office and made a call to your home, pretending to be from the restaurant."

"But you're going to see him throughout all of August," Katara argued. "Why go through with this… deception?"

"Katara, Sokka is my boyfriend, and I really do want to spend time with him," Yue said softly. "Besides, we're not going to have that much time together. My father isn't very happy about me dating Sokka, and besides, Sokka will be busy with his job. We're not going to have as many opportunities to hang out as you might think, Kat."

"I was just hoping…" much to her dismay, Katara began to sob. She realized how incriminating her reaction must have looked to Yue, but she simply could not control her emotions any longer.

"I know, babe… I know," Yue embraced her, whispering soothingly. "You're always going to be my main girl, Kat. I really hate myself for having upset you so much."

"It's… not your fault," Katara sobbed, trying to stop herself from crying. The effort just made her cry even harder. "I'm angry with Sokka, anyway. Why couldn't he just let me have this?" she exclaimed in frustration, wiping her reddened eyes with the sleeve of her dress while she waited for Yue's reaction. There was no way that the other girl had not guessed the reason why Katara was so distraught, and surely her only reaction could be disgust at the feelings Katara clearly had for her. Why else would Katara be breaking down like this unless she was seriously into Yue?

Still, for some reason, Yue was not withdrawing in disgust. If anything, she seemed to be hugging Katara even more fiercely. "Listen to me closely, Kat," Yue spoke softly. "We're both only fourteen. Sokka's not the first boy I've dated, and he's not going to be the last. But regardless of what boy I'm going out with I want you to know something. Nothing is ever going to change the way I feel about you, Kat. We have a special connection, you and I, and I think you know that. You'll always be special to me, babe."

Katara didn't know how to respond. She was very upset and needed time to process what Yue was saying. Her words were sweet, but Katara still felt as if Yue was simply trying to let her down gently. Or maybe Yue was trying to tell her something else? Yue had just said that her father disapproved of her dating Sokka, probably because Sokka was dirt-poor. If a dirt-poor boy was no good, then a dirt-poor girl would probably be hundred times worse. Katara forced herself to take a deep breath. "Your father…" she began hesitantly.

"Yes, Katara," Yue nodded at her. "My father expects me to conform to certain… standards. He is tolerating Sokka because it hasn't become very serious yet. But there are certain things he wouldn't tolerate."

He would not tolerate me dating another girl. Katara understood immediately. Somehow, the possibility that Yue on some level wanted her, but knew that they couldn't pursue a relationship, didn't make any of this easier to accept. Katara still wanted the clarity of knowing whether Yue fancied her, at least a little, but… she was just too terrified to ask. "I think I understand," she finally said in a quiet voice, starting to calm down.

"Then you're not mad at me?" Yue asked hopefully. Katara vigorously shook her head, hair loops bouncing around. "Spirits, I'm so relieved to know that. It would have hurt so much to know that you're mad at me, Kat."

"It's alright, Yue," Katara had recovered enough to manage an earnest smile. "I was being really silly just now. And I was being very selfish."

Yue seemed to become upset at her words, however. "Don't you ever say something like that again, girl," Yue admonished her. "Your feelings are not silly. They're very important to me. And I'm going to make sure that your feelings are not hurt. Sokka may have traveled all this way to hang out with me, but I swear that he won't receive all of my free time. We're still going to hang out, Kat, just the two of us. I promise," she said, then pulling Katara into a fierce hug.

Katara eased into the embrace, allowing the happiness of their physical contact and Yue's reassuring words to fill her. "Thanks, Yue," she whispered. "You should go back to Sokka, though. He's probably freaking out at the gate. Just tell him that he doesn't have to fear me ratting him out. I'm not going to do that."

"I knew you wouldn't," Yue smiled at her. "Because you're one of a kind, Kat," she added before leaving. Katara remained sitting on the bench, still feeling overwhelmed from their conversation. Yue now knew for certain that Katara fancied her, and her reaction had been… more accepting than Katara had expected.

Another week passed at Uncle Iroh's summer Pai Sho camp. It wasn't Katara's most treasured week of July, mostly because she now had to share Yue with Sokka, and she just couldn't help becoming a little envious of her brother. She never got mad at Yue, though, because she could see how the other girl genuinely tried her best to split her free time evenly between the Enuaraq siblings. When Katara wasn't overcome by her jealousy, she had to wonder how Sokka felt about this arrangement, realizing that her brother had legitimate grounds to also feel a little upset. After all, Yue was his girlfriend, while Katara and Yue were merely friends… best friends, sure, but it still wasn't on the same level. Sokka had hitchhiked all this way, probably thinking that he'd have Yue's undivided attention, only to discover that he would have to compete for Yue with his sister. This realization helped Katara temper her envy towards Sokka, and made her appreciate what time she got to enjoy with Yue all the more.

And it wasn't as if Katara was completely miserable when she couldn't hang out with Yue. She ended up spending more time with Toph and Aang, always getting a good chuckle from watching the antics of the two younger kids. Aang was dealing well with her gentle rebuke of his advances and did not appear terribly upset with her. Katara felt that it would not be appropriate for her to start encouraging Aang to ask Toph out, but watching the two younger kids interact, Katara began to suspect that perhaps in the end Aang wouldn't even need her encouragement. He suddenly seemed to be showing much more interest in Toph, and the girl from Gaoling appeared grateful for it. Knowing that Katara was not her romantic rival had also made Toph act less acerbic towards her, and as a result, the bonds of friendship between the threesome only deepened.

As far as the other kids were concerned, Haru seemed to have gotten over his disappointment of Katara's rejection, and had then moved to pursue Kori Morishita. Even though Katara clearly recalled Kori having a steady boyfriend three months ago in Yu Dao, Kori seemed quite responsive to Haru's affections. Katara was rather amused to hear Yue telling her how she had run into them making out in a secluded nook of the vast estate gardens.

At the start of the final week of the camp, Uncle Iroh had decided to change the pace of their Pai Sho practice by throwing a friendly little contest in the form of a speed Pai Sho tournament. The prize was quite tantalizing, an opportunity to choose the venue for the penultimate day of the camp when Uncle Iroh was known to throw a party for all the kids who had attended the month-long summer camp. Katara would have loved to win the prize of this friendly contest. She had several locales of Ba Sing Se in mind for such an occasion. However, Katara knew full well that her chances of winning a speed Pai Sho tournament were close to non-existent. Speed Pai Sho was more for players like Azula Nakamura, someone who was well used to making their moves in ten seconds or less. Katara's brain didn't work like that. She needed more time to consider her move before she truly felt comfortable committing to it. The speed limit of only having ten minutes for the entire game was putting Katara right out of her comfort zone.

As the tournament progressed, Katara's expectations of her own performance quickly came true. She would have been happy to finish with an even record, which meant having as many wins as she had losses, and until the final game of the tournament, she managed to hold on to that score. But then she came up against Zuko Nakamura in the final round, the reigning U18 champion who had thus far mercilessly clobbered all of his opponents. Katara did her best to try and stifle him the same way she had confounded Azula Nakamura to win the U15 title, but it quickly proved hopeless. Zuko decimated her in a little over twenty moves, a rather embarrassing disaster for Katara.

"I expected better from the U15 champion," Zuko snorted at the conclusion of their game. "Honestly, that wasn't impressive at all."

"I don't know what to say, other than that speed Pai Sho just isn't my thing," Katara shrugged. Zuko's words were spoken rather dismissively, but there was no denying that he was right. Besides, Katara had already accepted the fact that Zuko didn't really know how to be polite or gracious towards the younger kids.

"Then maybe you should try and get better at it. There's plenty of money to be made in professional speed Pai Sho tournaments," Zuko replied, getting up from the table to leave.

Not deterred by his terseness, Katara also rose and hurried after Zuko. There was something she had wanted to ask him all throughout the camp, but that Jin girl was always hanging around Zuko like some possessive and glaring specter, chasing away any girl that would dare to approach her precious Zuko. "Hey, Zuko…" she called out after him, making the older boy stop in his tracks. He turned around, wrinkling his brow at her approach. "Listen, there's something I wanted to ask of you…"

"No autographs outside the official signing sessions," Zuko frowned at her.

"What? No, I don't want your autograph, you jerk!" Katara exclaimed. Zuko actually looked rather affronted at that. "I wanted to ask you… well, actually, it's about your sister."

Zuko's expression darkened beyond that which Katara had ever witnessed. And she had seen Zuko get pretty angry on a few occasions. "Why, what do you want to know?" he barked. "I'm going to tell you straight up, Azula is not my favorite topic of discussion."

"I'm sorry, but I just want to know something," Katara refused to budge even though Zuko was looming over her threateningly. "When I beat Azula in Yu Dao…"

"That's the only reason why I'm wasting my time talking to you," Zuko snorted. "Alright, I'll be honest. You played a very good game. I only wish I could have been there to see the look on Azula's face."

Katara frowned at Zuko's reaction. She didn't understand the Nakamura family dynamics. She could imagine that perhaps there was some resentment between those ending up on the opposite sides, but she hadn't expected Zuko to be this hostile. "It's not about that, I didn't bring up my victory in order to brag," Katara said quickly to clear up any misunderstanding. "I think that your father did something to Azula after she lost."

"Like what?" Zuko asked, looking at her with his eyes narrowed. He did seem curious.

"I think he hurt her. Like… physically. You know, gave her a beating," Katara managed. She still felt uneasy thinking back about that episode. She felt like perhaps she hadn't done enough.

"Pfft. My father was beating me all the time," Zuko shrugged. "And Azula actually defended him! She said I deserved it! So yeah, whatever. Azula made that bed when she sided with our father. Now she has to lie in it."

"Was that during the divorce proceedings?" Katara asked. "But she would have been only ten at the time! You can't justify her being abused like that just because she said or thought something when she was so young!"

"It's not just about that! You have no idea about all the ways in which she tormented me when we were still living under the same roof!" Zuko's voice rose to the level of shouting. "This!" he pointed at the scar marring the side of his face. "Azula is the reason why I must forever carry this grotesque mark!"

"Did she do that?" Katara asked in a soothing voice, trying to placate Zuko. It didn't seem to be working.

"She was the reason behind that entire incident!" Zuko glared right back at her.

"But what exactly did-…" Katara pressed on, but she never got to finish. Zuko was onto her in a flash, seizing her and then roughly shoving her backwards. Katara ended up sprawled on the neatly trimmed lawn, looking up at the angry boy standing over her and fuming. He was so mad that for a moment Katara thought she could see smoke coming from his nostrils, like an irate dragon.

"Zuko!" the voice of Uncle Iroh immediately caused the tension to drop slightly, although Zuko still looked angry. "What is the meaning of this? You can't treat a lovely young lady like Katara in such a way!" Iroh looked disapproving as he walked up to them, Katara slowly picking herself up from the ground.

"I'll do much worse if she keeps poking her nose into affairs she should damn well stay out of!" Zuko exclaimed, not backing down even from his beloved uncle. "And I mean it!" he added before stomping off angrily.

"Are you alright, Katara?" Iroh asked, helping the girl get back up to her feet.

"I'm not hurt," Katara managed. She felt more than a little perturbed by what had happened. The sheer amount of rage burning in Zuko, it was frightening. "I didn't mean to provoke Zuko…"

"I heard some of that conversation, and you did nothing of the sort, young lady," Iroh said. He then let out a deep sigh, turning to look after Zuko but his nephew had already fled the scene. "I'm afraid that Zuko still finds certain inquiries about his family very… sensitive."

"Yes, so I noticed," Katara nodded, rubbing her shoulder. It didn't hurt as such, but it did feel a little stiff.

"As I understand you were making inquiries about my niece?" Iroh asked. Katara nodded quickly. "I see. Well… follow me, then. Perhaps it's best we talk somewhere more private," the older man spoke, leading Katara inside the estate and towards his quarters, entering a large study crammed with an astonishing amount of Pai Sho awards, medals, diplomas, a wall of newspaper cuttings, all sorts of exciting memorabilia that for the moment made Katara forget that she was curious to learn about Azula Nakamura.

Iroh poured them both glasses of cherry lemonade and then beckoned Katara to sit down at the table with him. "You must understand that I have not been to the Fire Nation in three years, and as such, might not be the most accurate source of information. That said… I sometimes end up hearing things," he added, sounding a little amused at some kind of a private joke that Katara didn't get. "What is it that you wish to know about young Azula?"

"It's… about her relationship with her father. I have a feeling that she is… not treated well," Katara explained.

"Ah," Iroh winced, appearing uncomfortable. "Sadly, I am not surprised. I was clear in my statement to the jury. My brother is a violent man, and I didn't think that it would change just because Zuko was to be removed from that abusive environment. It is regrettable that Azula is now suffering the same treatment."

"I don't understand how the courts did not remove both Zuko and Azula from his care," Katara wondered. "I heard that a lot of witnesses decided against testifying, but you were there and you gave a statement. Their mother must have testified. And the scar on Zuko's face…"

"Considering how stacked the jury was with Ozai's sycophants, I'm surprised that the judge didn't side fully in Ozai's favor," Iroh sighed. "Of course, Ursa fought tooth and nail to get both of her children away from Ozai, but…"

"But how did they decide that Ursa would keep Zuko and Ozai would retain Azula?" Katara inquired further. This was the strangest divorce case she had ever heard about, not that she had heard about many.

Iroh paused for a moment, looking like he was searching for an answer, not having one ready. "The truth is that I don't know," he finally admitted. "All I know is that Ursa and Ozai met in private to settle the matter. Afterwards, I helped Ursa and Zuko travel to Ba Sing Se and start a new life in the Earth Kingdom. Azula was left with Ozai. I don't know… perhaps Ursa believed that Ozai would not hurt the girl. He had always favored Azula over her brother, he absolutely adored her. Ursa must have thought that Ozai's cruelty extended only to Zuko and not to Azula."

Katara wasn't sure what to think about this explanation. It seemed like such a strange leap of faith to assume that Ozai, a known abuser, would treat his daughter decently. How could a mother make this sort of choice between her children? Iroh had said that Azula was Ozai's favorite. Was Zuko their mother's favorite? What sort of parents even had favorite children? Everything about this felt wrong.

"Zuko said that his scar was Azula's fault," Katara said, having spent a moment to take it all in.

"Those two never got along from a very early age," Iroh sighed. "Azula goaded Zuko into a fight and then pretended to be seriously hurt. Their father flew into a rage and burned the side of Zuko's face."

"But that's awful!" Katara exclaimed in distress. "How could the jury remain unmoved by this story? I mean… the evidence was right there, on Zuko's face."

"Well… they questioned the authenticity of the story," Iroh admitted reluctantly. "After all, I wasn't present at the time of the incident, so I was retelling the account given to me by Ursa and Zuko. Ozai contested the story and offered a different interpretation. Azula supported her father."

"What did they claim happened to Zuko's face?" Katara asked with bated breath.

"It doesn't matter, Katara. Whatever they said was a filthy lie. Ozai always lies," Iroh sighed deeply. Katara wasn't quite certain why he wasn't giving her the full story, but she reckoned that perhaps the memory of it was just too painful.

"So… there's no way to get Azula out of this situation where she's being abused?" Katara asked then.

"It would be extremely difficult, considering Ozai's influence… and believe me, I have made inquiries," Iroh said, sounding reluctant. "The first option is to simply wait until she reaches eighteen and can make the decision to walk away from her father. The other option… well, if Ozai were to do something so awful to her that even the corrupt and bought off Fire Nation child services could not ignore, then she could be separated from her father. But I think I would vastly prefer the first option."

Katara felt a cold shudder running through her, followed by a wave of disappointment that it seemed impossible to do anything to help Azula. "I agree," was all she could say in the end. "Let's hope that other option never comes to pass."

Next chapter: It's autumn, and both Azula and Katara are back at their Pai Sho boards, trying to qualify for the main U18 World Junior Championship event.

Chapter Text

"Ziri, I really think we have to be strategic about this. We need a plan," a woman in her early twenties spoke, glancing across the table at her younger companion. They were sitting in the corner of a dingy roadside Waffle House, some fifteen miles outside Caldera City.

"I can just… you know, win enough games to qualify," the younger woman replied with a shrug, her thick twin braids bouncing lightly.

"I don't doubt you're good enough to do that, sister, but why not stack the odds further into your favor?" the older of the pair suggested. The tomboyish pixie cut of her pitch-black hair and the copious amount of dark eyeliner gave her a bit of a dangerous rebel appearance. "It really doesn't help that Zuko Nakamura has already claimed a spot. That just leaves three more spots up for grabs, and I'm sad to say, but Zirin, you're not among the favorites to finish on the podium."

"Pfft, what do those bookies know," the younger girl scoffed, pushing aside the plate with her half-eaten food. These roadside dives were a constant source of disappointment. It was hard to imagine how a waffle could even be this soggy. It defied the laws of waffle physics. "I can do it, June."

"You think you're better than Chan Takahashi, Ruon-Jian Ogawa or Azula Nakamura?" June Sakai asked, shaking her head at her younger sister. "You're going to have to finish ahead of one of them to qualify, and I can tell you right away, it's not going to be easy unless we somehow boost your chances. Fortunately for you, I may have a plan."

"Really? Well, this ought to be good," Zirin grinned at her older sister. It was not a sarcastic smile at all. June was an amazing schemer and Zirin admired her for it. Over the past few years, Zirin had watched her sister pull off so many cons, it was making Zirin's head spin when she tried to take it all in.

"I think the way to do this is to throw one of the favorites off their game," June began to lay out her plan. "What's better than some good old teen drama and raging hormones?"

"You want me to… what, seduce one of them?" Zirin laughed. She made an exaggerated kissy face at her sister, accompanied by the waggling of eyebrows. "Sure, I can try that. I'm not sure that Chan or Ruon would fall for it, though. We've already met in qualifiers before. They might become suspicious if I tried to get really friendly all of a sudden. As for Azula Nakamura… well, she's a girl, right?"

"Ah, but you see, this is where being well connected really pays off, Ziri," June winked at her younger sister. "I heard from this one girl who used to know a girl that Azula attended school with. Long story short, there's this rumor that Azula used to have a girlfriend a couple of years back."

"Really?" Zirin seemed surprised, her dark brown eyes widening slightly in surprise.

"Would that be a problem for you?" June asked.

"Wait, you want me to try and seduce Azula Nakamura?" Zirin laughed. "That's… so crazy it just might work. She's a couple of years younger than me, which means she might be more impressionable."

"So, just to make sure, you're alright with this?" June wanted to be certain.

"I've seen her pictures in the papers. She's very pretty," Zirin nodded. "Sure, I can give it a try. Mess with her mind a bit and see if it throws the poor girl off her game. Also, Azula's age might work against her. It's a good plan, June."

"As are most of my plans," June grinned smugly. "Of course, I have another angle when selecting Azula Nakamura as your target."

"I would almost lose respect for you if you didn't have another angle, sis," Zirin smiled at June. "What is it?"

"The plan kind of depends on how well you can ingratiate yourself with Azula," June said. "If she were to… I don't know, invite you to her house, you might want to do a little scoping of the layout and security. It might be worth paying the place a nightly visit during the tournament. The Nakamuras are filthy rich, right? They probably don't even know how to spend all their money. That's where we come in, Ziri. We'll help them spend all those riches."

"Hmm, tempting," Zirin smiled. At the same time, she couldn't help but feel a little alarmed. This was the kind of a big target that June usually stayed away from. "I don't know, though… June, stealing from someone like Ozai Nakamura might attract too much attention."

"Ziri, I don't want to do this my entire life, alright? We've been on the road ever since you were thirteen," June sighed. "You deserve better, sis. We both do. This is a choice between continuing as we have until one day we slip up, or pulling off one big job and then retiring to enjoy our wealth. I mean… do you think you're going to earn enough to feed us both through Pai Sho anytime soon?"

"I don't think so, I still need to improve a lot," Zirin admitted. She couldn't help but feel a little surprised. She had been firmly convinced that June actually took pleasure in being this sort of outlaw, conning people out of their hard-earned money and committing the occasional theft. "Sorry, I had no idea you felt this way, June. Maybe we made a mistake running away."

June's face twisted to an angry snarl, the fierce reaction taking Zirin aback. "Are you kidding?" she snapped at her younger sister. "You must have a shorter memory than I do if you have forgotten the living hell that was co-existence with our dear step-moron."

Zirin winced as memories came back to her in a flood. The frequent fights and arguments between the two sisters and their stepfather had been escalating for some time, until one day they both had had enough. "No, you're right… I remember it all only too well," she admitted with a sigh. "We did the right thing, June. We're going to end up on top, and we'll do it by sticking together through thick and thin."

"That's exactly right," June smiled at her sister. "And don't you ever forget it."

Azula stood in the large foyer of the family's Caldera City estate, filled with anxious anticipation as she regarded her reflection in the mirror. She rather enjoyed the view of her bright red kitten-heeled pumps, tiny red skirt and a matching chiffon blouse with black geometric patterns. The curtain bangs and the perfectly formed top knot completed the picture of style and elegance.

It was the first day of the Fire Nation qualifying tournament for the next year's U18 finals that would also be held in Caldera City, and Azula couldn't wait to get back into the swing of actual tournament play, eager to put her summer's training to good use and decimate her hapless opponents. But most of all, Azula was desperate to prove to her father that her last year's loss to Katara Enuaraq had been a mere anomaly.

And speaking of her father, Ozai Nakamura was uncharacteristically running late. He was supposed to take her to the Hotel Royal where the tournament was taking place, but listening in at her father's office doors, Azula had overheard him speaking loudly on the phone. When Ozai emerged from his rooms a couple of minutes later, wearing his burgundy suit and carrying a brown suitcase, Azula immediately realized that there had been a change of plans. Her father wore this particular suit only while traveling abroad.

"Let's go, we don't want you to be late for your first game," Ozai began, only then looking up at her and pausing as he took in her appearance. Azula froze with uncertainty. The expression in her father's eyes spoke of mild disapproval and it made Azula wonder whether the miniskirt might have been a tad too much. Still, it was the latest fashion trend and Azula was nothing but fashionable. In the end, Ozai said nothing as he walked through the front doors with an unreadable expression on his face and beckoned for her to follow.

Her father didn't speak again until their Imperial Crown limo was already on its way towards Hotel Royal. "As you might have already guessed, something came up. I need to leave immediately for Ba Sing Se," Ozai resumed speaking. "I won't be back until the final day of the tournament." Azula felt both disappointed and relieved at the same time. On one hand, she was eager to impress her father and have him witness her victories from the VIP seat in his private suite. On the other hand, Ozai's physical presence tended to create a stressful and suffocating atmosphere, putting Azula under additional pressure to perform well.

"This doesn't change anything about what is expected of you, and you know it," Ozai continued. "Your worthless brother has already claimed one of the Fire Nation qualifying slots as the defending champion. It means there are only three places up for grabs. I fully expect you to finish on the podium, Azula."

"I won't let you down, father," Azula nodded confidently.

"I certainly hope you won't," Ozai replied. "If you were to fail me, I would be deeply disappointed. Naturally, I would secure a wild card for the finals for you regardless of where you place in the standings. But if you were to bring shame on this family, then you should expect a severe punishment. And I mean very severe, Azula. You have met young Teo Guyuk, correct?"

"I've beaten him both times we've played," Azula replied.

"That's not why I brought him up, daughter," Ozai looked at her, a cold, threatening stare as he placed his hand on her knee, gripping it firmly. "If you know Teo Guyuk, then you would know that you don't need to be able to walk to be an excellent Pai Sho player."

Azula shuddered at the clear threat, finding it hard to hold her father's stare. Ozai then smiled at her, a brief and insincere smile as he patted her knee. If it had been meant as a supportive gesture, it failed. "Well, I'm sure I will have no reason to punish you when I return home, yes?" he asked, smiling at her again, but it was a smile that never quite reached his eyes.

"Like I said… I will not let you down, father," Azula managed. Still, her father's threats had rocked her confidence and instilled her with fear. She couldn't understand why he had to do that if he truly wanted her to succeed.

"I have also decided to entrust you with a degree of autonomy while I am gone, just to see whether you are deserving of such a level of trust or not," Ozai said as the limo came to a stop in front of the hotel. At this point, Azula desperately wanted to get out and just proceed with the tournament play, but there was no way she could leave the car before Ozai had allowed her to do so. "The servants of the estate are at your full disposal, but be aware that they will report any inappropriate behavior to me. You are free to use the old Chrysler. The driver has his instructions. So, enjoy your freedom, but don't forget to stick to the routine, don't neglect prep work and analysis. And I don't want to hear any stories about you going out late. 9pm is the absolute limit."

"Yes, father," Azula nodded obediently. This freedom was essentially the same gilded cage as before. The only difference was that now it was Ozai's servants watching her every move instead of Ozai and his servants.

"And Azula?" her father spoke one final warning as she was already about to get out of the car. "I'm sure that I don't need to remind you, but… absolutely no boys. However, I am not heartless and I understand that for a girl of your age it must be hard not having any company. There are at least a few girls attending this year's tournament. Should you befriend one of them, I would not object to you inviting them to the estate. As long as there are no repeats of that incident…"

Azula flinched at the reminder of that whole debacle with Ty Lee, remembering both the beating she had received, and the severe consequences for Ty Lee and her family. She wasn't exactly eager to repeat that experience. It was clear that her father wouldn't stand for her entertaining such deviant leanings. "Of course, you don't need to worry about that," she moved to quickly reassure her father. "I will make you proud, both of my performance, and of my conduct."

"See that you do, Azula," Ozai smiled at his daughter, leaning over her to open the doors of the limo and let her out. Azula did not hesitate for a moment, getting out of the car and briskly walking up the stairs to the hotel's entrance, trying her best to put this conversation with her father right out of her mind.

The forty-five mile long drive to Agna Qel'a was not an enjoyable experience for Katara. Half a year ago, she and Sokka had somehow just about managed to squeeze into the sole passenger seat, but with them both doing a bit of growing up over the past six months, there was no chance of side-by-side squeezing. And since neither of them wanted to sit in the wet and muddy cargo space at the back, Katara had ended up spending the entire journey sitting in her brother's lap, which was an extremely embarrassing and uncomfortable experience for them both. She had to demand that their father take frequent breaks just so that she could get out and stretch her legs. The autumn rains had also left the roads to the capital in a sorry state, making for a bumpy ride and further compounding her misery. In the end, upon their arrival in Agna Qel'a, Katara could barely feel her legs anymore and she had felt so dizzy from vertigo that she had nearly puked all over herself and Sokka.

Katara could not wait for the day when she and Sokka could get their own driver's licenses. At least for Sokka that day was looming very close. It was just so annoying to have a car that nobody could drive for four or five days straight while Hakoda was out on the oil rig. Their grandmother, Kanna, had failed to renew her driver's license on the account of failing eyesight. At least on their way back to Cape Kuruk, Katara and Sokka would be taking the bus. Katara would have preferred to take the bus while traveling to Agna Qel'a as well, but Hakoda had wanted to combine taking his kids to the capital with a shopping trip for some fishing supplies and building materials that were not readily available in Cape Kuruk. And Katara did not want to go on the bus alone, leaving Sokka and Hakoda taking the car all by themselves. She wanted to be with her family, even at the cost of considerable discomfort.

Things began to look up once they had arrived in the capital. Sure, the autumn weather remained miserable, but the cheap hotel on the outskirts of Agna Qel'a was actually a lot nicer and comfier than Katara had feared it would be. And this time the choice of hotel wasn't just to cut costs. Curiously, this year's Water Tribe qualifying tournament was being held in the observatory of Agna Qel'a, an impressive looking structure built on the slopes of a gradually rising snow-covered incline some four miles outside the city border.

Katara and Sokka had arrived on the day before the official opening of the tournament, Katara taking the afternoon to settle in the hotel and then doing some light mental exercises in preparation for tomorrow's game. Meanwhile, Sokka had gone out to shop with their father. When they returned a few hours later, they were accompanied by someone Katara had been desperate to meet all the way to Agna Qel'a, none other than her best friend and hopeless crush, Yue Taqqiq. Hakoda then bid his children goodbye and began his long trek back to Cape Kuruk, leaving Sokka, Katara and Yue to catch up in the hotel room shared by the two Enuaraq siblings.

"This isn't so bad, actually," were Yue's first words when she entered the hotel room. Obviously, it must have felt quite miserable to Yue. Katara hadn't seen the Taqqiq family estate, but she had heard the stories of its opulence. Not from Yue, though, she wasn't the type to brag or rub it in.

"Having to share with my sister wasn't exactly what I had in mind when we made our plans about me coming along to the tournament," Sokka grumbled, pulling Yue down onto his bed to sit next to him.

"Trust me, Sokka, I'm not thrilled about it either," Katara sighed at her brother. It didn't help that her period was due in a few days. Katara knew that even if she managed to remain perfectly discreet, she would still end up tearing into Sokka at some point. Things would get even worse if Sokka noticed something and started making stupid comments, as he was prone to do. That would most likely result in Katara going ballistic on him.

"Just be nice to each other and try to make the best out of a bad situation, alright?" Yue chuckled, trying to ease the tension between the siblings. Both Sokka and Katara immediately lost any desire for continued arguing. Yue was really good at this.

"You just don't get this whole friendly sibling rivalry, do you?" Sokka chuckled, pulling Yue closer for a kiss. Yue was the only child. Her mother had died in childbirth and her father had rather surprisingly never remarried, even though the tragedy had struck when Arnook was still a very young man. "It might seem like Katara and I argue a lot, but trust me, we're tight."

"I know, Sokka," Yue smiled at him. "But I would still rather see you two being nice to each other."

"The things I do for you, babe," Sokka chuckled, starting to kiss her again, but Yue wriggled out of his embrace soon enough, much to Sokka's disappointment. Katara had started to feel frustrated and jealous lying on the belly in her bed, but seeing Yue evading Sokka's attentions filled Katara with some petty satisfaction. With her and Sokka sharing the room, Sokka wouldn't be able to take things further than kissing. And he couldn't sneak into the Taqqiq estate to visit Yue there. The servants were instructed to chase any unauthorized suitor of Yue away with sticks, or worse, and Sokka was as unauthorized as they came.

"Kat, how are you feeling about tomorrow?" Yue looked over at Katara. "Calm or a bit stressed?"

"Just a bit stressed," Katara confessed. Not bad enough to reach for Librium. At least not yet.

"Why would you be stressed?" Sokka shrugged. "You two are going to breeze through and qualify, like you always do."

"Err, Sokka? This year is going to be a lot different," Katara sighed at her brother. "We'll have to play sixteen and seventeen year olds. Granted, most of them don't hold a candle to me or Yue, but… Hahn Adjuk will be there. He just missed out on the bronze at last year's U18 finals, so he's really dangerous."

"First time I hear of this Hahn Adjuk," Sokka frowned. "Who's he?"

"A real asshole, Sokka," Yue snapped. Katara and Sokka exchanged glances, surprised at the other girl's vehemence. It wasn't like Yue to speak so badly about someone. "He comes from a rich family that owns gold mines way up in the north. The guy is really full of himself. For some reason, my father thinks the world of him. Or maybe he thinks the world of those gold mines…" Yue added bitterly.

"I can't stand him already," Sokka said, looking upset. He was perceptive enough to understand the meaning behind Yue's words. Arnook Taqqiq thought that Hahn Adjuk was a suitable match for Yue. He most certainly would not think that about Sokka. "I hope you two can destroy him."

"That is the plan," Yue nodded, hopeful, but perhaps not completely confident. "I want us all to go to Caldera City together next spring, while Hahn Adjuk stays behind to sulk."

"That would be great, but considering there are only two spots up for grabs, we both will probably have to beat him," Katara said. "I guess we'll know more tomorrow once the draw is made."

The qualifying tournaments usually followed a different system of play than the championship finals where every participant played against the others in a round-robin. Because of the amount of participants in the qualifiers, almost forty kids trying to qualify for the U18 finals, it would have been impractical to use a round robin system. It would take a couple of months for the tournament to conclude and the kids couldn't be taken out of school for so long. This meant that a different system had to be introduced. The competition would last for nine rounds. For the first three rounds, names of all the players would be tossed into a pool and drawn randomly against each other. After the first three rounds, the field would be split into two based on their current standings and those from the upper ladder of the standings would then be drawn against each other. This meant that as the tournament progressed, the stronger players began to get matched up against each other. Unless Yue, Katara and Hahn were randomly drawn up against one another in the first three rounds, they would most likely end up facing each other in the latter rounds.

"I'd actually prefer to catch Hahn in an earlier round," Yue mused. "Get him before he settles into his groove."

"That would be my preference as well," Katara nodded. "I really hope we can both qualify, Yue." She was so looking forward to traveling to Caldera City together with Yue. The travel would be more expensive than going to Yu Dao, so Katara hoped that Sokka's arguments of having to go along to look out for Katara would be left ignored. Besides, she was now fifteen. She could take care of herself perfectly well, big city or not.

Still, all of these dreams would be for nothing unless they both managed to get past the competition posed by Hahn Adjuk… and that would be a daunting challenge for the two girls.

Azula was on her way to leave the large banquet hall of Hotel Royal, converted to host the Fire Nation U18 qualifiers. The victory she had just scored in the first round had felt very underwhelming. The draw had put her against ridiculously weak opposition in the first three rounds. Winning a game in sixteen moves at this level? The organizers clearly had no standards for entry, nothing to separate the chaff from the wheat, and they were letting just about anyone to take part. To Azula, it simply felt shameful not to be challenged at this level.

She was about to reach the elevator doors to take her down to the ground level of the hotel, when Azula was startled by a soft feminine voice speaking up nearby to address her. "Hey, there," the owner of the voice said as Azula frantically looked around, then spotting a girl leaning against a pillar just behind her. It almost seemed as if she had been waiting for her? That alone made Azula feel instantly alarmed.

"Yes?" Azula looked at the slightly odd looking girl. She was a good few inches taller than Azula, probably at least a year her senior. Her style of clothing was unconventional to say the least, but Azula thought that she was pulling it off, the sleeveless tunic in crazy psychedelic colors over her ripped jeans. She had large, intense brown eyes and a scattering of freckles across her cheeks. Her thick twin braids, however, were like pulled from another decade. Azula felt like she should feel outraged about this crime against current fashion trends, but somehow, the overall appearance of this girl was… rather fascinating. "Uh… can I help you?" she managed a little awkwardly, suddenly becoming aware that she had spent a few seconds simply staring at the other girl.

"I just watched you crush that guy in… sixteen moves? Impressive," the older girl smiled at her. Azula immediately remarked that she had a pretty smile. Still, Azula remained guarded towards this sudden and unexpected approach. "I'm a bit of a fan of your achievements at the U15 level."

"Thanks, I guess?" Azula frowned. "You have me at a disadvantage, though."

The girl gave her a questioning stare, then blushing slightly and breaking into a wider grin. "Oh, right! I should have started with introductions," she uttered quickly. "I'm Zirin. Zirin Sakai."

"Ah. I've heard about you," Azula remarked. She had, of course, studied all of her potential threats in this tournament. Ruon-Jian Ogawa and Chan Takahashi were the obvious dangers, and Azula had studied their games very closely. Zirin Sakai was the other potential rival. All three of them, Chan, Ruon-Jian and Zirin already had experience at the U18 finals, which made them very dangerous. And still, Zirin was something of an enigma to Azula. She hadn't done particularly well at the finals, but she had won her game against Ruon-Jian. Azula hadn't been able to find as many of Zirin's past games as she had wanted in order to get a good grip on her style of play. She hadn't even been able to find a photo, and if Azula had been asked to imagine how Zirin Sakai might look, she certainly would not have imagined the girl currently leaning casually against the pillar.

"Hopefully only good things," Zirin winked at her slyly.

"I know that you can play," Azula admitted. It was as much of a compliment as she was willing to give.

"I wanted to ask you something," Zirin said, peeling off from the pillar and walking up to her. The way she moved, the smooth confidence of the older girl, it all made Azula instantly intrigued. "We both killed our sad opposition in less than twenty moves. Not much to study and analyze about that kind of victory, right?"

"Right," Azula frowned, uncertain what Zirin was getting at. "What's your point?"

"My point is that we both probably have a lot of free time on our hands," Zirin grinned. "So I thought to ask if you want to hang out and maybe grab a cup of coffee."

Azula felt very tempted to accept the invitation. Here was a rather gorgeous older girl, showing an interest in her. That sort of thing didn't happen to her every day. In fact, it had never happened to her before. And it just happened to coincide with her father's absence. Maybe this is a test? Azula frowned, shaking her head at that thought. No, that was her being paranoid. Zirin was a legit competitor and rival, not some plant of her father's.

"Come on, it will be fun," Zirin insisted, probably having interpreted Azula's shake of the head as a refusal.

"I don't want to fraternize with a rival, not before I've demolished you at the Pai Sho board," Azula eventually replied. "We can go get some coffee to soothe your defeat."

"I love your confidence, Azula," Zirin spoke, the tone of her voice sultry. It made Azula's knees feel just a tad weak. "Come on, what do you think is going to happen if we were to hang out a bit? We've already studied each other's games. It's not like I'm going to learn something I don't already know just from us hanging out a bit. Or maybe you're afraid that I'll get under your skin?"

Azula bristled at the notion that there was something she was afraid of. And Zirin's words did make a lot of sense. Besides, she was becoming seriously intrigued by the older girl. "Fine," Azula finally said. "Let's go get ourselves some coffee."

Next chapter: The qualifiers continue and Azula finds herself entangled further with Zirin, while Katara and Yue's plan to eliminate Hahn falters.

Chapter Text

Azula wasn't quite sure what had gotten into her over the past few days, but she was having more fun than she could remember. No… she could remember. It was just that she didn't want to. The last time she had enjoyed herself so much had been with Ty Lee, and thinking back about anything related to Ty Lee still felt very painful.

Not that anything of the sort of what had happened with Ty Lee was going on with Zirin. After hanging out with Zirin on the first day of the tournament, the same pattern repeated on the second and third day of competition. They would both destroy their opposition quickly and then meet up to spend a couple of hours just hanging out and chatting. Azula had never been great at simple casual conversation, but Zirin was a natural. She could talk for hours on end without coming off like an empty-headed chatterbox. She asked Azula all sorts of questions, and Azula found herself opening up more than she had done in years, ever since losing that connection to Mai and Ty Lee. It helped that Zirin wasn't asking her questions that were deeply personal. That would have probably forced Azula to withdraw into a defensive shell. They were simply discussing fashion, music and whatever other interests they both had outside of Pai Sho.

After the third round and before the tournament off-day, the draw for the next three rounds was held. Azula was relieved not to be drawn up against Zirin. However, she was scheduled to play Chan Takahashi in Round 6. That would be a big test for her, and Azula knew that she probably should have used the off-day to really crack down on her preparations. Instead, she had invited Zirin Sakai to visit her at the Caldera City estate. After all, her father had allowed her to invite female friends, as long as the Ty Lee incident did not repeat itself. And it wasn't going to repeat itself. It was totally a coincidence that Azula had asked Zirin to come over late in the afternoon when most of the servants wouldn't be around to eavesdrop on them. It wasn't as if Azula was in any way attracted to Zirin and hoped that something would happen… or at least, that was what she was trying to tell herself.

Having Zirin over at the estate was a lot of fun. She was always very attentive when Azula tried to impress her with the Nakamura family wealth on display. When Azula was telling her something, Zirin always made Azula feel like she cared about what Azula had to say. Azula was not used to that and found it deeply flattering. Her father never seemed to truly care about what she actually thought. His questions were usually meant to either make sure if she had done what had been asked of her, or simply to test her. Her old friends, Mai and Ty Lee, hadn't been great listeners, either. Even when Mai listened to Azula, she largely appeared bored. Ty Lee desperately tried to fake interest, but she was always so easily distracted and Azula could see that most of what she said went right over Ty Lee's head.

Zirin had appeared very curious about the estate, not that Azula could blame her. The manor was a truly splendorous piece of architecture, built upon the ruins of the bathhouse of the Old Empire. Having satisfied Zirin's interest and having answered all of her questions, the pair stopped in the kitchen, left empty with the cook's departure. They raided one of the fridges to discover a vast supply of Borden's ice cream, Azula choosing her favorite burgundy cherry flavor while making fun of Zirin's choice of cherry coconut. Afterwards, they played a few friendly sparring matches of Pai Sho, finding themselves evenly matched. It was a little past nine in the evening and the streets outside had gone dark a long time ago, when they settled on a sofa in one of the living rooms, in front of a state of the art Magnavox TV set. It was one of the first TV sets which had a remote, yet another thing that Azula could impress Zirin with. This allowed Azula to flip through the channels without having to get up from the sofa and break contact with the other girl as they sat side by side, their shoulders brushing lightly.

"Oh, don't tell me… are you a fan?" Zirin asked, having noticed that Azula had stopped switching through the channels and had settled on a particular show. 'There is a fifth dimension, beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity,' sounded the voice of the narrator during the intro of the show.

"I don't know about being a fan, but I enjoy The Twilight Zone. I always want to watch some reruns around Halloween time," Azula smiled briefly, but then her expression clouded a little. "My father doesn't approve of me watching it, though. He thinks it's a distraction."

"There's nothing wrong with a little bit of distraction now and then," Zirin said softly.

"I guess so, if you don't want to achieve anything noteworthy in your life," Azula shrugged. "Or at least that's what my father would say."

"Have you ever considered that your father might not have all the answers, Azula?" Zirin asked.

"He's literally the wealthiest and most influential person in the Fire Nation, perhaps in the whole world," Azula replied confidently. "If he doesn't have all the answers, then I don't know who would."

"He may have all the riches, but do they make him happy?" Zirin continued. Azula found herself becoming a little frustrated. She hated other people questioning her father behind his back. It made her become defensive of him. "He seems like an angry and violent man."

"I don't see what happiness has to do with anything. That seems like a stupid point to make," Azula shrugged. "Anyway, shush," she said, pointing at the TV screen. "It's The Living Doll. I love this episode."

For a while, they watched the episode in silence. Azula's frustration began to gradually wane as she found herself immersed in the rather creepy story playing out on the screen. However, she soon became aware that Zirin seemed to be observing her expression more than she was watching the episode of the Twilight Zone. "What?" she eventually turned on Zirin, frowning.

"Sorry," Zirin blushed lightly. "I was just lost in thought, wondering about something." Azula stared at her intensely, as if demanding Zirin to elaborate. "Fine, I was wondering how you would react if I would try to kiss you," Zirin said.

At first, Azula felt completely dumbstruck. She was well aware of her own attraction to the older girl, but she hadn't considered that Zirin could be interested in her romantically. There were many other more credible reasons why Zirin would want to hang out with her. Azula was the daughter of a multimillionaire and Zirin was a dirt-poor vagabond. Perhaps this was just her way to try and get her nails into Azula, like a leech seeking a rich host to attach herself to.

"I would probably start screaming about being sexually assaulted while hoping that the gate guards would hear me," Azula replied.

"I don't think you would do that, Azula," Zirin chuckled confidently.

"Oh, is this a setup where I am expected to invite you to try?" Azula snorted, turning her attention right back to the TV screen. "Sorry, not going to happen."

"You'll find me very difficult to discourage once I have set my mind on something," Zirin still remained confident. After a short pause, she leaned in and pressed a soft kiss against Azula's cheek.

Azula froze at the touch of Zirin's lips and the light touch of the other girl's fingers on her jaw, turning Azula's head to face Zirin. She found herself being kissed again, this time on the lips. Azula felt like her head was spinning. She had missed this so much and Zirin's lips felt very different from Ty Lee's clumsy and awkward, innocently sweet kisses. Still, Azula could not let this get out of hand, regardless of how much she was enjoying herself. "You're moving too fast," she said, pulling away and breaking the kiss.

"Ah… sorry," Zirin looked genuinely apologetic. "I just feel this sort of strange, magnetic pull towards you, I can't explain it."

"Sounds like something from the Twilight Zone," Azula rolled her eyes. Breaking the kiss had been difficult and painful. Still, she suddenly found herself suspicious of Zirin's motives. Something about this sudden attraction felt off to Azula. "Shall we watch some more episodes? I think it's a marathon of reruns this evening."

"Alright, I guess I can stay for a while longer," Zirin nodded eagerly. "Not too long though, it's starting to get really late and I still need to get back to my motel."

"Where are you staying?" Azula asked.

"The Turtleduck Inn," Zirin replied. Azula's reaction was a completely blank facial expression. "It's on the other side of the city, where you've probably never set a foot. Yes, I'm staying at the proverbial slums."

"Oh," Azula remarked. Suddenly, a thought occurred to her. "Well, I can ask the guards to call a taxi for you. Or… you could stay the night here. There are like six guest bedrooms. Take your pick."

"Are you serious?" Zirin asked, looking excited.

"Why wouldn't I be?" Azula shrugged. "You're not staying in my room. I'm not inviting you to do anything inappropriate."

"Sadly," Zirin quipped. Azula rolled her eyes. "Anyway, I really appreciate it, Azula. You're a real doll."

"Anytime," Azula smirked at the other girl, pleased that Zirin had agreed. If her Pai Sho rival was plotting something nefarious, it only made sense to keep Zirin closer where Azula could watch her.

Katara was sitting at a table in the hotel's cafeteria space, slowly working through the somewhat bland scrambled eggs and bacon on her plate. It was the tournament's off-day following the first three rounds, but Katara's mood was sullen, despite her having scored three fairly easy victories in the early rounds. The reason for her foul mood was that her and Yue's plan to take the two top spots ahead of Hahn Adjuk was off to a terrible start. Yue had drawn Hahn in the second round, and despite hoping that she could catch Hahn cold, Yue had lost, badly. Hahn had all but steamrolled her with ease that was making Katara deeply apprehensive regarding her own chances when facing the arrogant looking older boy.

Another reason for Katara's irritation was that she had learned just who had taken Hahn Adjuk under his wing as his favorite protégé. It was none other than grandmaster Pakku Karetak, the old curmudgeon who had rejected Katara's request to become her mentor. This certainly explained the level of confidence and skill in Hahn's game. Katara suddenly began to feel quite pessimistic about either her or Yue being able to dislodge Hahn from the top spot which he probably considered his to lose.

It was during this moment in Katara's contemplations that Sokka returned to the table, having wandered off in search for seconds. The first plate Sokka had brought to the table had been so laden that Katara could have never finished it even on a dare, but of course, Sokka still craved for more. Her brother truly was a freak of nature when it came to his appetite. A frustrating freak of nature, who had forgotten to retrieve the only thing Katara had asked of him when Sokka had left the table in search for more food. "Sokka!" she glared at him.

"What, what, what?" Sokka blinked back at her.

"Ugh! I asked you to pick up the morning paper for me!" Katara exclaimed.

"Oh…" Sokka smacked his brow and ran off, returning moments later to toss the morning paper over to Katara. "What are you so curious about, anyway?"

"I just want to find out how the Fire Nation and Earth Kingdom qualifiers are progressing," Katara replied, ignoring her lukewarm eggs and bacon, instead focusing all of her attention to the newspaper. She quickly found the relevant pages dedicated to the sports news. The Pai Sho results were at the very bottom of the page, in a shrift so small that Katara had to squint to read them in the dim light of the cafeteria.

None of the favorites in the Earth Kingdom qualifiers had stumbled yet. Haru Tamang, Ghashiun al-Alawi, Teo Guyuk, Kori Morishita and Joo Dee Feng all had three points out of three, along with a slew of other names which Katara didn't recognize. Katara then browsed the results from the Fire Nation, again finding a rather large group of contestants with the maximum available points. Looking for some familiar names, she recognized Chan Takahashi, Ruon-Jian Ogawa and Zirin Sakai. Oh, and there it was, the name she had been looking for, that of Azula Nakamura.

It wasn't that Katara particularly wanted Azula Nakamura to qualify for the finals. Azula would probably be looking to avenge the loss of the previous year, so Katara was not looking forward to facing Azula. Katara was just relieved to see Azula's name in the paper. It meant that she was fine… no, that was assuming too much, but at least she was well enough to play and win. And when Katara thought about it more, she actually did want Azula to qualify. If Azula failed to do so, Katara could well imagine what Ozai Nakamura would do to his daughter. The thought of someone she actually knew going through something so awful was making Katara physically ill.

"Good news?" Sokka asked, slowly and methodically working through his pile of food.

"Eh, it's early days in the tournaments," Katara shrugged. "I was just being curious." She didn't want to explain to Sokka that she had been specifically interested in Azula Nakamura. She had a feeling that he wouldn't understand.

"Right, so…" Sokka continued, speaking as he chewed. Katara winced at his atrocious manners. "You're coming to meet up with Yue? Maybe you should stay behind and practice some more. That Hahn guy is for real, right?"

Katara let out a deep sigh. Sokka could be so transparent when it came to him wanting to enjoy some alone time with Yue. And sure, Hahn was a threat, but the draw of the next three rounds had been kind for Katara. She wouldn't be meeting Hahn until the final three rounds. The only player of note in Katara's near future was young Siku Ikuma in Round 6, but while talented, she was still very inexperienced. Katara didn't think her upcoming opponents merited her spending the whole day locked up in her room, banging her head against the Pai Sho board, not when the alternative was meeting up with Yue in the city and do all sorts of fun stuff together. They had already made plans the previous day to go to the ice skating rink and then visit the ice sculpture display later in the evening. The morning held a strong promise of turning into an amazing day, and Katara wasn't about to let Sokka and Yue have all the fun for themselves.

"I'll be alright, Sokka, don't worry," Katara snorted at her brother. "If anyone needs a day of preparation and training, it's Yue. She's in trouble now."

"Yeah… it really sucked watching her lose to that jerk Hahn," Sokka frowned. "I'm just glad she's not really down about it."

"Yes, that is good," Katara nodded. Sokka had unwittingly touched upon something that was making Katara rather curious. Yue had been completely unconcerned about her loss, and Katara could not quite figure out her peculiar reaction. She wondered if Yue perhaps had some kind of a plan that she was not sharing, but for now, Katara could do nothing but wait and see.

Azula was a very light sleeper. Having been raised in a household like hers, it was not at all surprising. Growing up, there was always one thing or another that had interrupted Azula's sleep and awakened her, whether it was her father's shouting, her mother's cries and pleas or Zuko's pathetic squeaking as he tried to step in between his arguing parents, attempting to play some sort of a ridiculous peacemaker. It didn't surprise Azula that she had developed sleep related issues. Azula suspected herself suffering from a mild form of self-diagnosed somniphobia. She certainly wasn't going to speak to anyone about these problems. It's not like she wanted to give Ozai more reasons to accuse her of being weak.

It was then no surprise to Azula that she had been awakened by the subtlest of creaks of the floorboards out in the hallway. Azula tiptoed over to the bedroom doors and pressed her ear against the carved oaken door. Zirin probably just had to visit the bathroom. There was nothing to be worried about, no reason to become paranoid. Or maybe there was? The next sounds Azula heard was of someone, presumably Zirin, climbing down the stairs. The bathroom was in the other direction, at the end of the hallway.

Azula waited for at least a minute before opening the doors and sneaking out into the hallway. She was a physically fit young girl with an excellent sense of balance of an experienced horse rider and a beginner level fencer. She could easily tiptoe around the house while remaining silent like a ghost, doing a much better job of being sneaky than Zirin. Azula crept down the stairs, trying to guess where the other girl might have gone. She waited for Zirin to once again make some noise and give away her location before she wandered into the hallway where she could be easily spotted. Azula didn't have to wait long to hear the sound of footsteps to her left, Zirin entering one of the rooms there.

She's going into the kitchen? Maybe she just wants a midnight snack? Azula thought frantically. What else is there in the kitchen? Oh… of course, one of the phones. Azula began to slowly creep towards the kitchen, recognizing the familiar sound of the rotary dial being turned. Shortly afterwards, she heard Zirin's voice, speaking in hushed whispers.

"Hi, June? It's me," Zirin spoke on the phone. "Yeah, I'm at Azula's place. Can you believe she invited me to stay the night? Talk about a lucky break. Yeah… yeah, I think I have all the info you wanted, June. Yes, the layout and the guards, everything."

Oh, obviously, why did I expect anything else from someone beneath me? Azula thought bitterly to herself. Why would an older girl like her be seriously interested in me? She's just scouting out the estate for her burglar friend, the complete and utter bitch.

"No, I'm not telling you everything on the phone, I don't want to risk getting overheard," Zirin continued on the phone. "Actually, no… and this might surprise you, June. At the first glance she's this stuck-up, pretentious bitch, but honestly, she's actually kinda fun once she lets you a little closer. So… I feel a little bad about doing this. Yeah, I actually like her," Zirin let out a quiet sigh. "No… no, we're still doing this, obviously, but you get what I mean. Anyway, I better dash. See you tomorrow, June."

Azula quickly crept away, back towards the stairway, soon finding herself back in her bedroom, quietly closing the doors behind her back. Azula remained standing there, her back pressed against the doors. She was greatly upset, breathing heavily. So, you like me, but you're still going to steal from me and my family, bitch? It's not going to end well for you, I promise. I'm going to destroy you both at the Pai Sho board, and away from it. The guards will know all about your plans, and security will be tripled. If this June is stupid enough to show up, she'll be in for a nasty surprise.

"Well, that doesn't look good," Chan Takahashi commented, giving Azula a smug grin from the other side of the board. Azula did not bother dignifying his words with a response. She utterly loathed players who spoke at the board. It had always been a part of the professional player's code to keep one's mouth closed while playing, aside from the expected phrases of politeness before and after the game. Once the game began, you were supposed to shut up. Chan apparently hadn't gotten the memo.

Azula had rolled over her opponents in the two previous rounds, just as she had expected, although she had felt a little off her game. The whole thing with Zirin was bothering her a great deal. And then, after the games, they would still go and hang out, and Azula would pretend not knowing that Zirin planned to betray her. At least Azula had learned something important in these conversations with Zirin, the identity of this June person Zirin had mentioned on the phone. Apparently, June Sakai was Zirin's elder sister, and the cat burglar planning to rob the Nakamura manor in Caldera City.

And while Azula had enjoyed an easy time defeating her opponents in the previous rounds, even in her distracted state, she was now coming unstuck against that smug, pretentious prick Chan Takahashi. Azula tried desperately to cling on, secure some kind of foothold in their contest. She hadn't even made any obvious mistakes, unlike that one time against Katara Enuaraq. Chan was just gradually chipping away at her position with his every move, grinning like a complete git.

Azula tried everything she could think of, simplifying the game as much as possible, hoping to survive until the endgame and possibly hold on for a draw. Alas, once they entered the endgame, she found herself with such an obvious disadvantage that there was no point in trying to postpone the inevitable. Azula knew that she hadn't even played horribly. She just hadn't been mentally sharp enough, largely because the whole mess with Zirin was such a distraction. So, after forty-six moves, Azula finally stopped the timing clock and offered her surrender to the grinning Chan Takahashi.

"No hard feelings, eh, babe?" Chan winked at her, like the dullard that he was. "Come on, I'll buy you a milkshake to wash down the disappointment."

"The only thing I would do if you gave me a milkshake, would be to empty it on your stupid head," Azula snorted, getting up from the table and walking away, leaving a scowling Chan behind.

Feeling annoyed, Azula would have preferred to immediately leave the premises. However, the draw for the final three rounds was about to commence at the conclusion of Round 6, so she was forced to stick around to find out who her next opponents would be, following the second rest day tomorrow. Even though Azula desperately wanted to be left alone with her own thoughts while she waited, she was not at all surprised when Zirin sought her out, offering words of comfort regarding her loss.

"That's a real shame, babe, but I know you will bounce back. I have faith in you," Zirin offered her empty platitudes which left Azula unimpressed. It was easy for the other girl to speak. Zirin, Chan and Ruon, all of her main competitors, hadn't dropped any points. With this loss to Chan, Azula had dug herself a major hole and now she needed to figure out a way to get out of it. Of course, Ruon, Chan and Zirin hadn't played any games among themselves, so it was possible that they would derail each other, but Azula didn't want to count on that. She needed to get back into shape before it was too late.

They had to wait for about half an hour before the tournament organizers revealed the schedule of matches for the final three rounds. Azula felt strangely amused by what she saw on the large blackboard. She was scheduled to play some relative nobody in Round 7, Ruon-Jian in Round 8 and Zirin in the final round. Somehow, she was not at all surprised that it would all unfold in this exact manner. Some basic calculation told Azula that she would absolutely need to win against either Ruon or Zirin, but it was also possible that she could not afford another loss. Her situation was precarious and the threat of her father's anger began to loom larger and larger at the back of her mind.

"Damn, Ruon, Chan and then you for my last three rounds," Zirin groaned next to her. "But that was always in the cards, I guess. Anyway, I don't want to think about that just yet. I have this sudden craving for ice cream. Want to go get some? We can think about what to do on our off-day over some chocolate sundaes."

"Are you for real?" Azula blinked at the other girl.

"What?" Zirin stared at her.

"I just lost a really important game, Zirin," Azula stated, feeling incredulous about even having to explain. "I'm going straight home to work on my prep right away. And I'm spending the off-day on more and more preparations. So, whatever we've been doing…"

"Hanging out, starting a budding romance?" Zirin tried with a charming wink. It wasn't going to work.

"Whatever you want to call it, but it's on indefinite hold. Sorry," Azula said emotionlessly, turning to walk away and leaving a disappointed looking Zirin behind. But I'm not as sorry as you'll be, bitch, when I destroy you in the final round…

Next chapter: The qualifiers come to a close. Katara faces off against Hahn, while Azula has to deal with a break-in before facing Zirin. Will our girls make it to the finals?

Chapter Text

On the day of the penultimate round of the tournament, Katara arrived at the Agna Qel'a observatory feeling reasonably confident. She was leading the tournament with seven points out of seven, same as Hahn Adjuk. Yue was trailing them by a point, and a couple of other contestants were a further half a point behind. The final two rounds would decide everything, as Katara was scheduled to play Hahn in Round 8 and then Yue in the final round.

All things considered, Katara had expected herself to feel more nervous, even having taken a Librium pill the previous evening. However, as she sat down at the Pai Sho board in the main hall of the observatory with its impressively high domed roof, Katara felt a strange and soothing calm coming over her. It wasn't just the sedating effect of the pill. It was more because Katara had a plan for her upcoming match with Hahn.

Waiting for the game to begin, Katara did some basic mental exercises, focusing on her breathing to keep herself relaxed. She could see Hahn milling about, conversing with some of the spectators, mostly younger girls. Hahn was in no hurry to sit down at the Pai Sho board and Katara was perfectly fine with that. She allowed herself a brief glance at the audience, spotting Sokka nearby and smiling at her brother. Not far away, she noticed grandmaster Pakku Karetak. He seemed to be glaring at his protégé Hahn, probably displeased about him wasting his time with the fans and just wishing that Hahn would focus more on his upcoming match. Katara kept staring at Pakku until he noticed her looking at him. She flashed a beaming smile at the old grandmaster, earning herself a frustrated scowl in return. Feeling even better about herself, Katara looked over at Yue a few tables away, her best friend preparing to crush some far less talented player. Katara smiled at Yue, receiving a quick grin and a wink in return.

Finally, some thirty seconds before the start of play, Hahn finally made his way over to the table, shook her hand and sat down, but not before making a ridiculous remark about there being almost too many hot chicks at this year's tournament and winking at his opponent. Katara ignored the remark, not rising to the bait. Hahn was probably just trying to throw Katara off her game, and she wasn't going to let it happen. No, she would hit him with something unexpected.

All throughout the tournament, Katara had been facing opponents considerably weaker than her. Because of that, she had been able to defeat them by remaining in her comfort zone and employing her naturally defensive style of play. She was well aware that this tactic would not work with Hahn Adjuk. Hahn was also a very solid defensive player, with style similar to hers, only more complete. Katara anticipated that his plan for their contest would be to gradually overwhelm her in a battle of two defensive strategies. He was about to receive a very unpleasant surprise.

Katara began the game very conservatively, just as Hahn had expected her to do. For the first dozen or so moves, she allowed the game to progress along a predictable pattern, slowly developing her tiles. But just when Katara felt that Hahn was starting to get comfortable and perhaps a little complacent, she suddenly switched her tactic completely. Katara went full out aggressive mode, going on an unexpected attack. This was not her usual style, and Katara knew that some of the moves she was making were not exactly well thought out and could be considered very risky. However, the game of Pai Sho was as much about skill as it was about psychology. Being able to surprise your opponent was a very important element of the game, and judging by the stunned look on Hahn's face, Katara was doing a great job in surprising him.

Within half a dozen moves, the situation on the board had transformed completely. Katara had completely blitzed Hahn and wiped out all of his tiles on the left side of the board. Taken by surprise, Hahn failed to find the best response to Katara's aggression, and his position crumbled like a house of cards. On the twenty-fourth move, Katara's White Jade tile took Hahn's unguarded Rose and formed a harmony ring, leaving Hahn staring at the board in incomprehension.

"What just happened?" Hahn managed. Katara almost felt sorry upon seeing the forlorn look on his face. Almost, but not quite.

"I would call it a complete and utter embarrassment," Katara replied, smiling. Right now, she was feeling really good about herself. Katara caught Yue staring at her with a questioning look in her eyes, giving Yue thumbs up in response. The broad grin on Yue's face was all the reward Katara had craved for.

It looked like Hahn was about to make a nasty retort at her, but fortunately, one of the tournament's referees had wandered up to their table, so the comment never left Hahn's lips. Without any further word, Hahn Adjuk rose from the table and walked off, disappearing into the crowd and ignoring the attempts of his mentor to beckon him over for some well-earned chewing out.

Feeling emboldened, Katara got up from the table and walked over to where grandmaster Pakku Karetak stood among the spectators. "I hope you enjoyed watching the game, grandmaster," she spoke, appearing all innocent smiles.

"Your offensive strategies leave a lot to be desired, Enuaraq," Pakku sneered at her. "You made far too many mistakes in that game. A better player would have punished you severely."

"Ah, thank you for the admission that I am a better player than your student," Katara kept smiling. "Perhaps you will admit to having made an unfortunate choice when deciding who to tutor, after all?" she asked, watching Pakku mutter something incomprehensible as he glared at her.

By now, Katara had accomplished what she had wanted, and so she walked away, smiling smugly while keeping her head raised high. She wasn't usually petty or vindictive, but Pakku's earlier rejection had upset her a great deal, especially when it was done for such disgustingly sexist reasons. Getting back at him like this felt incredibly satisfying and Katara knew that she would savor the memories of this moment for the days to come.

Azula's light sleep once again forced her to wake up in the middle of the night to the sounds of some kind of ruckus coming from downstairs. Immediately guessing the reason for this commotion, Azula wasted no time in jumping out of the bed and dashing downstairs. In one of the ground floor drawing rooms, the two additional guards whose presence she had requested had pinned a black-clad figure to the floor, rendering them immobile. Two of the regular gate guards were on standby, making sure that their captive would not manage to pull any tricks.

"Miss Nakamura?" one of the guards addressed Azula, looking surprised to see her. Perhaps the man thought that Azula would be frightened in this situation. In that case, they did not know Azula at all. "Perhaps you should remain upstairs. We might be dealing with a hardened criminal here."

"Don't be ridiculous," Azula rolled her eyes at the guard. "Drag our burglar up to their feet. I want to talk to them." The guards exchanged confused stares, wondering whether they were supposed to be taking direct orders from Azula under these circumstances. She was the teenage daughter of their employer and only fifteen years old. However, her voice was very authoritative as she spoke. Eventually, the guards did as they were told, dragging the struggling cat burglar up to their feet.

"And remove that ridiculous balaclava, I want to see their face," Azula ordered. The face cover was immediately ripped off from the black-clad dressed burglar, revealing a young woman in her twenties, her tomboyish pixie cut all mussed up under the balaclava. She was glaring angrily at Azula and the guards, but it was quite clear that she was very frightened.

"What is your name?" Azula asked the burglar. She already knew the answer, but being in the position of power allowed her to enjoy some fun and games with her captive. The woman was not answering, continuing to glare at Azula. "Alright, I see how it is," Azula scowled, turning towards one of the gate guards. "What is your name?" she asked the surprised guard.

"Uh, I'm Aaron, Miss Nakamura," the guard replied, sounding a little confused.

"There, do you see how easy it is to answer a question?" Azula asked, turning back towards the cat burglar. "Aaron, would you please punch our intruder in the stomach because she would not answer one simple question?" The guard hesitated only for a moment, walking over to the captive woman and delivering a punch to her belly that left her doubled over and wincing in pain.

"See, we could have avoided this unpleasantness if you had just told me straight up that your name is June Sakai," Azula chuckled, watching as June's eyes widened in surprise.

"What the fuck is wrong with you… why would you do that if you already knew my name?" June spat out angrily. "How do you even know my name?"

"Oh, Zirin isn't nearly as stealthy as she believes herself to be," Azula chuckled. June's eyes widened in realization. "Yes, I know that you're Zirin's sister and I know that she has betrayed my trust. Hmm, I wonder… this robbery on the eve of the final round just as I'm about to face Zirin. It would have distracted me, right? Was that the plan?"

The way June immediately averted her gaze, unable to meet Azula's eyes, gave Azula the answer she was looking for. "I see, well… turnabout is fair play," Azula smirked. "Perhaps having her sister go missing in the wake of a failed burglary will instead distract Zirin."

These words seemed to really get to June. "Please, don't do this," she started to beg. "I'm all that Zirin has. She relies on me being there for her… please."

"Are you trying to convince me not to hand you over to the police?" Azula asked, feeling pleased. She always enjoyed good groveling from those beneath her. "What would be my incentive to do so? I'm Azula Nakamura. There's nothing you have that I would want in return for my benevolence."

"I… I could ask Zirin to throw the game tomorrow," June suggested after a moment of thought.

"That's not something I need," Azula shrugged. "Zirin is going to be so upset regardless of whether I let you walk or not, that I'm going to literally slaughter her tomorrow. Hmm… I don't know," Azula mused. "It's not like I particularly care whether you are put behind the bars or not. But just letting you walk away free without facing any consequences also doesn't feel right. After all, you did try to steal from my family."

"Please, just let me go," June begged. "I don't know if Zirin has told you, but I'm the only family she has left. She doesn't deserve to be abandoned. Zirin was having second thoughts about this all the time. She genuinely likes you, Azula."

"This is an interesting way to show how much she appreciates me," Azula shrugged. "Fine. I'm leaning towards letting you go." The guards looked rather astonished at Azula's words. "But like I said, there have to be at least some consequences. Guards?" she looked at her father's loyal hand-picked men. "Break a couple of her fingers as a punishment."

"No! No, what are you-" June protested frantically, but the guards quickly overpowered her. Two sharp cracks were followed by June's cries of pain as she sank to the ground, clutching her injured hand against her chest, tears streaming down her face. "What did you do that for, you sadistic psycho bitch?" June snapped at her angrily.

"I think you are being very ungrateful, June," Azula remarked calmly. "Would you really prefer me to call the police? My father can put in a word so that you would be put away for three, maybe even more years. He can make sure that bad things happen to you behind the bars. Is that what you want?" June quickly shook her head, still wincing from pain. "I think you should thank me, June. Repeat after me. Thank you for your benevolence, Miss Nakamura."

"Thank you for your benevolence, Miss Nakamura," June repeated desperately.

"Very well, I'm satisfied," Azula nodded to the guards. "You may throw her out now," she ordered, turning away to leave. "I'm going back to bed," Azula said, returning upstairs. This couldn't have gone any more perfectly. June would crawl back to the motel she shared with Zirin, beaten and with her fingers broken in the wake of her failed burglary. Zirin would be absolutely distraught seeing the state her sister was in. She would be in no state to play tomorrow, making her easy prey for Azula. The plan by the Sakai sisters had quite literally blown up in their faces.

As the competitors began to gather for the final round of the Water Tribes qualifying tournament, Katara found herself riddled with uncertainty and indecision. She was currently sitting at the top of the standings with eight points, Hahn and Yue trailing her on seven points. She was due to play Yue in less than fifteen minutes, while Hahn would face an easy opponent that he was sure to crush. That would put Hahn on eight points. The only way that Yue could still qualify was if she beat Katara in the final round, and that would put the three on them equal on eight points.

Yes, Katara was seriously considering not bringing her A-game just to make sure that Yue could go to Caldera City finals with her. However, Katara wasn't certain what would happen if the three of them shared the top spot. There were only two tickets available, after all. She hadn't read the tournament regulations about what rules would apply in such a situation. Perhaps there would be a quick round robin tournament of speed Pai Sho between the three of them. That would put Katara at a big disadvantage because she struggled at speed Pai Sho. She would probably miss out on the finals by trying to help Yue. Or maybe the tie would be broken by a coin toss? It was sometimes done this way, with the help of dumb luck. Katara didn't consider herself a very lucky person. Good things didn't happen to her very often. She didn't exactly fancy her chances of winning a coin toss.

Katara felt torn and indecisive. Should she play at her best and eliminate Yue? Or should she lose and risk not qualifying for the finals? She could not make up her mind as she stood next to the Pai Sho table, feeling too nervous to sit down. When a soothing and soft feminine voice unexpectedly spoke up close by, Katara almost jumped, startled by the unexpected approach.

"Hey," it was Yue. "Can we talk for a moment?"

"Sure," Katara nodded, quickly trying to gather her bearings. "What is it, Yue?"

"Let's step a little aside," Yue said, leading her away from the gathering crowd of fellow competitors. Once they were a little apart from the others, Yue faced her with a searching stare. "Katara, I think I know what you're thinking about."

"I don't know what you mean," Katara stuttered, hating how unconvincing she sounded. Did Yue really want to talk about Katara's feelings now? Why? Was she trying to throw Katara off her game?

"No, I'm pretty sure I am correct," Yue would not be easily deterred. "You're thinking about losing to me on purpose."

Oh. That. Katara found herself blushing deeply. "Fine, I was considering that," she admitted. Lying to Yue wasn't really an option.

"Don't do it, Katara," Yue firmly shook her head. "I don't need that sort of help. Trust me."

"But Hahn is going to win his game," Katara argued. "You'll be placed third unless I lose to you!"

"Yes, but there's something you don't know. It's something I didn't want to tell you, because I knew you won't like it," Yue sighed. "And I hoped I wouldn't need to tell you because we would be placed first and second. The thing is, Katara... next year's finals are in Caldera City, which means that Ozai Nakamura will be involved with the organizing committee. Ozai Nakamura owes a favor to my father. And my father told me that he would pull this favor to secure a wild card for me, if it were necessary. So, I'm going to Caldera City regardless of where I place."

"I see..." Katara blinked, feeling stunned. Never before had she felt so keenly that Yue Taqqiq belonged to a different world, a world where different rules applied. It was not at all a good feeling. "Well, I'm happy that we'll both be going in the end," she managed, still feeling conflicted.

"It's okay, Katara, I know you think this isn't right and I know that you don't like it," Yue smiled softly at her. "You can be honest with me about how you really feel. Your sense of justice and fairness is what I love about you."

Katara felt herself blushing fiercely. "Thanks, Yue," she smiled back at the other girl. "And no, I'm not all that upset, honest. I'm just relieved that we can both go to Caldera City."

"I know, isn't it great?" Yue grinned. "But still, you have to beat me first if you want to go. Shall we?" she pointed towards the table. Most of the contestants had already sat down in their seats with the games about to start.

Katara nodded and they both took their places. The bell was soon rung and the game began. It didn't take Katara long to gain an advantage, which she then gradually pushed home without much resistance from Yue. It really did feel as if Yue was not putting in her best effort, probably because she knew that she was going to the finals anyway, and she simply wanted to make sure that Katara qualified as well. Deep down, Katara wasn't happy about how it had all worked out in the end. There was a hint of unfairness about it all, and that bothered her. However, it was hard to argue that Yue didn't deserve the wild card on merit. She was definitely among the best Pai Sho players in her age group.

There was another thing that bothered Katara at the conclusion of the tournament, and that once again slightly overshadowed her victory. It was her firm belief that in case she should have placed third, nobody would even consider offering a wild card to poor Katara Enuaraq from the remote village of Cape Kuruk.

On paper, Azula's position before the final round was not great. She had beaten some nobody in Round 7 and then managed to squeeze out a draw against Ruon-Jian Ogawa, which was no mean feat. In the other games, Zirin had lost to Ruon-Jian, but had then managed to beat Chan. This meant that before the final round, Ruon-Jian was leading the tournament on 7.5 points and was as good as qualified. Chan and Zirin had 7 points each, and Azula trailed in the fourth place on 6.5 points.

The good thing about this situation was that ahead of the final round, Azula's fate was in her own hands. All she needed to do was to beat Zirin and she would place on the podium. And Azula had done all the necessary prep work to feel confident about destroying Zirin.

Aware that Zirin would be in quite the state because of what had happened to June, Azula wanted to pile on the psychological pressure even more. Knowing that Zirin would try to speak with her, Azula made sure to arrive at the hotel ten minutes after the start of the game. She didn't care about incurring some disadvantage in the form of lost time to Zirin. Putting Zirin on edge was much more important.

Indeed, when Azula sat down at the table, pointedly ignoring Zirin, she noticed that the other girl had already made her opening move and there were only fifty minutes left on her clock. She quickly made a basic move planting her Jasmine tile and pressed the button of the timing clock.

"Azula, please, can we talk about what happened?" Zirin asked instead of thinking about her next move. She sounded really down and her face reflected it, dark bags under her usually expressive, now dull brown eyes. "I'm really, really sorry about what happened. I didn't mean for things to go this far. I even tried to talk June out of it. I know it doesn't make it better, but-"

"No talking during games," Azula reprimanded her emotionlessly. She didn't care about Zirin's excuses. She had been a fool and had nearly been played. No more. "Do it again and I'm telling the referee."

Zirin winced from the coldness in Azula's voice. "Then at least let me thank you for sparing June from the prison. I will be forever in your debt for that," Zirin muttered, trying to refocus her attention on the game. If Zirin wanted to qualify for the finals, she could not allow Azula to win this game. Chan was playing his buddy Ruon in the final round, and since Ruon had already qualified, he would obviously help his pal by letting Chan win. This meant that the last qualifying berth was literally between Zirin and Azula.

However, Zirin was clearly too upset to play on this particular day. Neither her heart nor her head was in it. She had made several crucial mistakes by the fifteenth move. On move eighteen, Azula finished an elegant combination involving her Boat tile to set up a perfect harmony ring, and the game was over.

"I wish I didn't feel like I deserved that," Zirin let out a deep sigh.

"You really did," Azula nodded, getting up to walk away without bothering to shake Zirin's hand. With the final game of the tournament completed and her goal to qualify achieved, Azula wanted nothing more than to leave and not be anywhere near Zirin. Still, there was a small victory ceremony planned for the lucky qualifiers, and Azula supposed that her presence would be expected. Father would probably consider her absence as improper conduct and would be displeased with her.

Azula spent the next quarter of an hour successfully dodging Zirin and her attempts to apologize. Eventually, the older girl got the message and disappeared from Azula's sight. Azula felt relieved as she simply stood aside from the others, all by herself while waiting for the final games to be completed so that the victory ceremony could be held. At some point, Azula became aware of a crowd starting to form around the table where Chan and Ruon were playing out their game. Azula wasn't sure what could be the reason for all the commotion. That game was supposed to be a formality... or was it?

Spurred by curiosity, Azula walked up to the crowd and deftly elbowed her way through, ending up at the front of the group of spectators. Unfortunately, she had emerged right next to Zirin. Still, she steadfastly ignored the other girl and instead focused on the Pai Sho game unfolding before them. And Azula could not believe what she was seeing. Instead of letting his buddy Chan score the win he needed, Ruon-Jian was crushing his friend. Chan was losing badly, and he was not taking it well if the redness of his face was anything to go by. Anger was not an emotion that went well with Pai Sho and Chan discovered that within three moves when Ruon-Jian formed a harmony ring to deliver a knockout blow.

"What the actual fuck?" Chan bellowed as Ruon offered him a handshake, slapping his friend's hand aside and storming off in a rage. While Azula could understand Chan, she found the whole episode hilarious. At the end of the tournament, Ruon-Jian had won with 8.5 points. Azula had placed an impressive second on 7.5 points. Chan and Zirin both were on 7 points, but Chan had lost his game to Zirin. As a result, Zirin made the podium while the pre-tournament favorite had missed out on qualifying for the finals altogether. To say that this was a major upset was an understatement.

"You are the luckiest bitch in the whole world," Azula told Zirin who probably could not believe her good fortune.

"I guess this means we'll see each other at the finals," Zirin replied. "Maybe you'll feel ready to forgive me then."

"Don't count on it," Azula shrugged.

Fortunately, any further conversation between them was interrupted by the victory ceremony. It was mercifully short, and having tossed her flower bouquet in the nearest waste bin, Azula soon found herself hurrying towards the closest exit, only to quite literally crash into her father as he was rounding the corner.

"Father!" she exclaimed in surprise. Was she actually happy to see him? She had just placed second in the qualifying tournament, just as Ozai had demanded of her. It meant that she had pleased her father. Ozai was the only one who could give her validation and make her feel like she was worth something. Even if she didn't necessarily always want her father's overbearing presence, she was desperate for his approval.

"Azula, I just heard the good news, daughter," Ozai smiled at her, pulling his daughter into an embrace and kissing the top of her head. "You have done as I asked of you, and I could not be prouder."

Azula beamed happily. This was her drug, her addiction. She was getting high on her father's approval. "Thank you, father. Did you follow my games?" she asked hopefully.

"I did," Ozai nodded at her. "I am pleased, but there is much room for improvement, and I will see to it being done. However, it shouldn't detract from your success, Azula. You deserve to be rewarded. Name one thing you wish, within reason, and I will procure it for you."

Azula had been waiting for something like this. Her father probably expected her to ask for another horse, or something similarly extravagant, but there was one thing Azula wanted more than anything. "Father, I want to return to Li and Lo's boarding school. Will you please let me?" Azula asked, trying not to sound too desperate. Mai and Ty Lee may no longer be at the school, but Azula was tired of the crushing loneliness of the estate. Maybe she could make new friends, or just revel in the adoration of her sycophants.

"If that is what you want," her father shrugged, looking a little surprised. "Fine, you may return to Li and Lo's following the autumn school break. But now, let's go home."

"Thank you, father," Azula said gratefully. "I'm so glad you're back," she added. On this occasion, she even truly meant it.

Next chapter: How about checking in on our heroines to see how they are spending their winter holidays?

Chapter Text

Zirin Sakai sat at a table in the cramped and tiny kitchen of the rented single-room apartment in the slums of Caldera City she was sharing with her sister June. Taking the occasional swig of the instant coffee in her mug, she kept working on the letter in front of her. Despite Zirin's best efforts, the letter already had a couple of coffee stains and felt a little sticky at the back. Apparently, June had spilled some jam on the surface of the table and Zirin had failed to notice it.

Speaking of her sister June, Zirin noticed that she had just entered the kitchen. June was still in her nightwear, which consisted of an oversized sleeveless shirt. Her hair was all messy and June was struggling to fight off a yawn as she somehow succeeded in pouring herself some of the foul instant coffee without spilling it all over the floor. "Mhm, the nectar of life," June sighed, gulping down the hot liquid. She then looked over at her younger sibling. "Don't tell me you're writing another one."

"I don't see why I shouldn't," Zirin shrugged defensively.

"You really expect her to write back that she accepts your apology?" June frowned. "I think you're deluding yourself."

"That's not why I keep sending the letters," Zirin replied. "It's more for me than it is for her. I just need her to know that I really do feel sorry about what happened. I don't care if she burns them all without reading." Zirin couldn't have known that, but she had hit the nail on the head with that assumption. Azula had so far burned her apology letters unread, all fifteen of them.

"I still don't see why you feel the need to do it," June tucked herself in at the tiny table, managing to squeeze into a gap just by the window. She ended up sitting with her chin propped against her knee.

"It's hard to explain, but I just feel really bad about it all," Zirin sighed. "I had a gut feeling that we shouldn't try to steal from the Nakamuras, but I still didn't talk you out of it. It's partly my fault that it all happened the way it did. And for some reason, the thought that Azula hates my guts really bothers me, you know? I know it's going to shock you, June, but I actually like her. I really do."

June let out another sigh. "Well, that can't be helped, I guess," she shrugged. "Wish I could understand what you see in her. She seems like a psychotic rich bitch to me."

"I think she's a lot more than that, June," Zirin smiled. "She's a very contradictory person, and that makes her fascinating to me."

"Contradictory in what way?" June asked.

"I feel like she's stuck between what her father wants her to be, and what she herself wants to be, and she becomes horrified and scared when she realizes that those two images of herself are very dissimilar," Zirin tried to explain.

"Wow, that's deep," June chuckled. "You must really be into that crazy little bitch to come up with something like that about her."

Zirin blushed crimson at her sister's teasing. "Hey, maybe you should be a little bit more grateful to Azula," she couldn't help pointing out. "She could have made sure you'd be put away for years, June."

"Yeah, because this is so much better," June grumbled, staring at the fingers of her left hand that the Nakamura household guards had violently broken. The digits had largely healed, but she still often found her fingers going numb, losing all sensation in them. It wasn't boding well for her continued career as a cat burglar, and it was making her very bitter. "Who knows if I'll be able to work again," she sighed.

"But you already have a job. We both have," Zirin argued. "That's why we can at least afford this nice little apartment." June looked deeply skeptical. "Okay, so maybe it's not nice, but at least there are no rats or roaches."

"Talk about a low bar," June chuckled. "Anyway, I don't consider flipping burgers at the nearest Flameo's grill room to be a real job. Even if it's about all I can do."

"At least it's honest work," Zirin pointed out. And it kept June off the streets. Zirin never spoke about it with her sister because June quickly became annoyed whenever she brought it up, but Zirin was terrified for her sister every time she went on one of her jobs. She always feared that June's luck would one day run out. And she had been proven right. "Besides, isn't it great that we can work together?" she asked with an excited smile. "I think we look really cute in our Flameo's uniforms. The customers certainly think so, too. The other girls are all envious about our tips."

June smiled despite herself. "Yeah, it could be worse, I guess," she eventually admitted. "I just-" she let out a deep sigh.

"What is it June?" Zirin asked, noticing that her sister looked genuinely upset.

"This isn't exactly what I had hoped for us," June said quietly, lowering her eyes. "Not for myself, and especially not for you. I took you out of that toxic family situation so that I could give you a better life, sis."

"You're putting too much pressure on yourself, June," Zirin smiled encouragingly at her sister. "I think we'll make it big, one day. Maybe it'll happen later than we had hoped, but I still think it will come true. But even now, I'm happy with what I have. Do you know why?"

"Why?" June asked.

"Because it's yet another Solstice that the two of us can celebrate together," Zirin smiled broadly. "And that's the only thing that really matters to me. That we have each other."

"You know what?" June smiled back at her younger sibling. "You're absolutely right, Zirin. And because we're off work today, we'll make sure to celebrate Solstice properly."

"Does that mean you're going to make us some proper eggnog?" Zirin winked.

"Damn right," June nodded, getting up from the table and looking determined. "Anything for my awesome little sister."

It was early Yule morning in the Enuaraq household when Katara quietly snuck downstairs with the intent to check what presents had been placed inside her stocking on top of the fireplace mantel. The house was sinking in silence and she was the only one awake at about a quarter to eight in the morning. Usually, her grandmother would already be up and busying herself about in the kitchen, but last night, the family game of Scrabble had dragged on way past midnight, and it appeared to have left Kanna slightly exhausted. Still, it had been a wonderful evening. It wasn't often that they could have their father at home for the Winter Solstice, instead of having him stuck on that awful oil rig miles off from the coast.

Katara had almost reached the fireplace when she was suddenly startled by the sound of the phone ringing. Wondering who could be calling at such an early hour, Katara hurriedly rushed over to answer the call before the sound of ringing had woken up her loved ones. "Hello?" she asked, holding the phone handset to her ear.

"Katara?" She immediately recognized the sweetest of voices she had been longing to hear on the other end of the landline. "Hey, it's me, babe."

"Yue, I'm so happy to hear your voice," Katara replied with eager excitement. "But you should know that Sokka's not awake yet."

"I was actually hoping that you would answer," Yue said. All of a sudden, Katara felt very warm. "And sorry, I'm making a terrible mess of the time zones. It's early in the afternoon here on Kyoshi Island."

"That's okay, it's not that early over here," Katara spoke quickly. "Almost eight in the morning."

"Whoops, sorry about that," Yue sounded apologetic. "Anyway, I just felt so bad that you weren't around when I called yesterday. Speaking with Sokka was fun, but I wanted to talk to you as well. So, here's me, calling again. Got a minute?" Yue asked.

"I've got all the time in the world," Katara replied, unable to stop herself from grinning like a fool. She had lamented missing out on Yue's phone call yesterday, because of the silly reason of having been outside, building a snowman. She wasn't really interested in building the stupid snowman, she was far too old for that sort of silliness. Still, every house in Cape Kuruk had a snowman in front of it. Having a snowman up around the time of Winter Solstice was sort of a local tradition. It was one of those unquestioned things that you just simply had to do. Sokka, Hakoda or Kanna certainly weren't going to do it, so Katara had taken up the task all by herself.

And if Katara was perfectly honest with herself, she actually had experienced a bit of fun, feeling like an innocent child once again. Or at least, it had been fun until she had ended up thinking about all those times when she had built the snowman together with Kya, her mother. Those memories had made her stop and tear up for a few minutes, but fortunately Naga, the family Saint Bernard, had sensed that Katara was upset. Naga had emerged from her posh doghouse and wandered over to cuddle up against Katara and offer comfort. With Naga's help, Katara had finished the snowman, feeling reasonably proud of her achievement. Naga had then expressed her approval by peeing on the snowman, despite Katara's harsh glare.

"Are you having a good time, sweetheart?" Yue asked on the phone.

"Oh yes, it's wonderful," Katara replied. "We're not doing anything super exciting, just traditional stuff, but it's just great to have dad at home for once, you know?"

"I can understand that, Kat," Yue replied.

"How's it going on Kyoshi Island?" Katara asked. "I bet you're having all sorts of crazy fun."

"It's pretty amazing, yeah," Yue sounded excited. "I really wish you could be here, babe. Both you and Sokka. At some point we really ought to go on a holiday together, you know?"

"That would be great, but we have to be able to afford it first," Katara sighed. Yue had asked them both to come along, but she had done so already knowing that it would be impossible. Kyoshi Island was an expensive place, being a major tourist hub. Katara very much doubted that Arnook Taqqiq would cover all the expenses of her daughter's friends, especially since they were the kind of lower-class friends he probably looked down upon.

"Yeah, we'd have to figure out something about that," Yue agreed. "Oh, by the way, Kat. Your present was delivered just as I was about to leave for the holiday."

"Oh!" Katara instantly felt giddy. "Did you like it?" Katara had sent Yue a beautifully framed photograph of the two of them at the ice sculpture display. They were hugging, their cheeks pressed tightly together. Another reason why Katara loved the picture so much was because it was just the two of them, without Sokka.

"Like it? I love it!" Yue replied excitedly. "It's with me on this holiday. It almost makes me feel like you're here with me." Katara blushed from the other girl's words. She was greatly relieved that Yue couldn't actually see how deep crimson her face had become. "Did you get my gift, by the way?" Yue asked.

"Oh no, it hasn't arrived yet," Katara replied. She was feeling incredibly curious about what Yue had gotten for her.

"I hope you'll like it when it arrives," Yue said, sounding hopeful.

"I'm going to cherish it regardless of what it is, Yue," Katara spoke confidently.

"Aww, you're such a sweetheart, you're really making me blush here," Yue chuckled. "Anyway, tell me, what's the Enuaraq family plan for today? Anything fun going down?"

"Sokka and dad are going to work some more on the ice hockey rink in the backyard," Katara replied, starting to tell Yue in detail all about the work done so far. Sokka and Hakoda were both big-time into hockey, and making a rink was another winter tradition of theirs. Boys from all over the village would then come over to engage in some usually friendly, but sometimes quite heated and competitive games of hockey. When the tensions began to heat up, Katara's tried and tested method of intervention was to bring out a plate of brownies and cups of steaming hot chocolate for the warring boys, and that always defused the situation.

Having told Yue all about her plans for the holidays, Katara then pestered the other girl for more stories from Kyoshi Island, and afterwards they spent time discussing their plans for the spring trip to Caldera City and the U18 finals. Yue's wild card had been secured and they were now both certain of their participation. The only thing that still rankled Katara slightly was that she hadn't been able to convince her father that she didn't need Sokka's watchful eye on her in Caldera City. Even though Hakoda worked for the Fire Nation based Nakamura Industries, he wasn't exactly the greatest fan of the Fire Nation itself.

Eventually, their conversation came to an end when Yue's father demanded her presence. "Sorry, but I really have to run now," Yue said apologetically. "Love you, Kat!"

"Love you too," Katara replied dreamily. Putting the handset back in its place, she glanced at the nearby wall clock, suddenly realizing that they had talked for forty minutes straight. Time had just flown by Katara.

"Ahem," a voice spoke up right behind her. Katara jumped with a squeak, turning around to face her grinning brother. "Love you too?" he repeated, making exaggerated smooching noises. "Sounds like my little sister has a suitor. Who is it?"

Katara rolled her eyes at her brother's antics. "A suitor? Hardly. I was actually talking with Yue," she said.

"Ah, of course," Sokka laughed. He didn't look at all jealous, though. Katara and Yue often used the l-word casually around him. It was just a thing between two girls who were also best friends. There was nothing weird about that, even if Katara meant the l-word in a different way than Yue did. "Why didn't you tell me?" Sokka asked instead. "I wanted to talk with her, too."

"I would have told you, but her father showed up and she had to run," Katara explained. "Besides, you already spoke with her for like an hour yesterday," she added, a little huffily.

"Fair enough, I guess it was your turn," Sokka admitted with an affable grin. He glanced over at the mantelpiece, eyeing the stuffed stockings. "So, did you check out the presents already?"

"No, I was about to, but then Yue called," Katara replied. "Shall we?" she looked at her brother. Sokka didn't need to be told twice and mere moments later, they were both gushing over their thoughtfully chosen gifts.

"I can't believe you remembered!" Sokka exclaimed happily, busy playing with his brand new multi-functional hunting knife. "I really needed a new knife!"

"Sokka, you were moaning all November after you lost your old knife during Halloween," Katara chuckled, feeling amused. "I would have to be the least observant person in the world not to realize what you wanted for a Solstice gift. By the way, I still think you accidentally threw your old knife away with all those carved out bits of pumpkin."

"I would have never done anything so silly," Sokka petulantly stuck out his tongue at his sister. "Anyway, what do you think of your gift? It's pretty neat, huh?"

Katara looked down at the lovingly engraved box in her hands, opening it to discover a set of pristine Pai Sho tiles, carved from walrus ivory. "This is beautiful," she gasped, feeling overwhelmed. "Thank you so much, Sokka."

"Well, dad and Gran-Gran contributed to the idea just as much as I did, if not more," Sokka admitted.

"I will thank them as well, of course," Katara smiled. She then threw her arms around her big brother, startling him with an impulsive hug. "I know I often give you a hard time, Sokka, but I want you to know that I wouldn't trade my big lug of a brother for anyone else."

"Well, you're pretty alright yourself, sis," Sokka laughed, hugging her right back. "You're pretty damn alright."

Yue Taqqiq let out a delicate sigh, sitting next to the phone in her hotel room on Kyoshi Island. Her father had just barged into her room to bark at her about being on the phone for forty minutes straight, telling her to stop yammering, as if he couldn't afford the phone bill she had worked up over the previous few days. Then he had just left, leaving Yue to sit and wonder what to do next. It was still early in the afternoon, and it was yet another amazing sunny day at the tourist hotspot that was Kyoshi Island. It was the perfect time for sunbathing by the hotel pool, or even on the beach itself, crowded as it was. Yue had no doubt that regardless of which location she chose, she wouldn't struggle to find a handsome boy or an attractive girl, interested in hanging out with her.

Then again, maybe she didn't have to go looking for a random stranger. Her eyes fell on the little coaster on her nightstand, name and a phone number written on it, next to a crudely drawn heart icon. She had met someone in the hotel bar the previous evening, a rather fascinating girl, a year older than Yue herself. She had immediately impressed Yue by knowing exactly who she was. It turned out that this local girl, while not a Pai Sho player herself, was something of a fan of the game. Her dream was to one day become a journalist who would travel around the world covering all the various Pai Sho events. She had already written reports for both her school paper and the local news rag.

Yue's hand moved towards the phone dial, but then she hesitated slightly. The phone call with Katara was still fresh on her mind, also reminding her of Sokka. She earnestly cared about Sokka and thought that he was irresistibly cute. However, their relationship had its challenges, first in the physical distance between them and second in her father's disapproval. She just couldn't be with Sokka as often as she wanted to be. And Yue wanted to have more fun in her life than she could enjoy with Sokka, because she knew that her time for having fun was limited. She was the sole heir to a massive fortune. Her father wouldn't allow her to run off with just about anyone. She and her father had had this conversation before. Once she came of age, Arnook would marry her off to someone suitable... meaning, someone from a rich and influential family. Failure to comply with her father's wishes would result in losing her inheritance. And Yue could not afford to do that. She had no idea how to survive as a struggling member of the lower class.

If Yue was perfectly honest with herself, she thought about Katara almost as often as she thought about Sokka, if not more. She knew that Katara was seriously into her, Sokka's sister was not very good at hiding her affections. And Yue knew that she was guilty of occasionally leading Katara on, at least a little bit. It was just so hard to resist, even if she knew that relationship with Katara would be even more challenging to maintain than relationship with her brother already was. On top of all the reasons why it couldn't work out long-term with Sokka, Katara was a girl. If she went public with Katara, her father would not tolerate such a scandal. He could just about tolerate Sokka, at least for now, when it wasn't much more serious than puppy love.

Yue knew that the right thing to do would be to subtly discourage Katara's romantic affections towards her and let the other girl down gently. And yet, she couldn't bring herself to do that. The reasons for it were twofold. Firstly, Katara was the slightly better and more talented Pai Sho player. Their long-distance sparring matches were crucial for their preparation, but Yue knew that she was getting more out of this partnership than Katara was. Yue was doing so well at the tournaments largely because of Katara's help and she couldn't afford to lose this connection. Would Katara still be motivated to spend so much time with her if Yue stopped leading her on? Yue wasn't sure, but she didn't want to risk their partnership, even if the idea of stringing Katara along for such a selfish reason made Yue feel absolutely wretched about herself.

And then there was the second reason, which was far more complex and confusing, because in a way it made Yue feel that she wasn't actually leading Katara on as much as she was just confused about what she herself truly wanted. Sometimes, when Yue dared to look deep enough into her own heart, she became conflicted about whether Katara actually wasn't the one she truly wanted. Katara was always such a powerful temptation every time Yue was left alone with her. There was just something incredibly fascinating about a smart and affectionate girl like Katara who didn't seem to realize just how attractive she was. Sometimes it made Yue feel like she couldn't trust herself to keep things in the friend-zone with Katara. Yue knew that she could often get emotional and impulsive, and she didn't always think things through as much as she would have liked.

And while Yue was completely earnest about not wanting to hurt anyone involved, especially not the Enuaraq siblings, she knew that she could only walk this relationship tightrope up to a certain point before someone got really hurt. She didn't want it all to end in an absolute mess of hurt feelings and tearful drama, and most of all she didn't want to hurt the relationship between the siblings. And yet, at the same time Yue found herself too weak and indecisive to do the right thing and make a decision one way or another.

Even thinking about it was starting to get her down, giving Yue a headache. What she needed was a distraction, an innocent bit of flirty fun. She reached for the phone again, picking up the handset and dialing the number on the coaster. "Hello," she said when a voice answered on the other end of the line. "Is this Suki Arya? This is Yue Taqqiq. I'm at the hotel, getting bored, so I was wondering... maybe you'd like to hang out with me for a bit?"

Azula hated the Winter Solstice. She had always hated it, and she actively fought those vague memories of happier winter holidays when Ursa and Zuko were still a part of the family, and her parents weren't constantly at each other's throats. Ever since the divorce, Azula could not remember a time when her father hadn't been traveling during the Winter Solstice, and so the holidays for her had become synonymous with a period of crushing loneliness. She couldn't even watch the TV to distract herself. Every channel barraged her with movies and shows about happy families celebrating together and blathering on about how much they cared and appreciated one another. It was all utterly sickening.

She hated the Winter Solstice also because the school was out for the winter holidays. Azula had only just returned to resume her studies at Li and Lo's boarding school some six weeks ago and she had barely managed to settle in when the winter break had arrived. It wasn't that she particularly loved the school, especially because she hadn't yet managed to make friends like Ty Lee and Mai, but she enjoyed the break from routine that the school provided, and always having some of her loyal sycophants around was great for Azula's self-esteem.

Azula wondered if perhaps what had happened to Mai and Ty Lee was the reason why she was failing to make new friends at the school. She knew that the stories were circulating, especially about her and Ty Lee. Azula had even heard some hushed derogatory comments made in her direction, always behind her back and never to her face. Perhaps it was the rumor that she was not exactly straight, which was making her into a bit of a pariah… a feared but respected pariah, which seemed like an odd contradiction in terms. Azula knew that she would have to do something to quash these rumors and show everyone that she was completely and utterly straight, and that she totally wasn't deluding herself on this point. She just hadn't gotten around to it yet. Besides, it was hard to do anything about it when Ozai was making sure that she had very limited access to seeing any boys.

She had made inquiries among the other girls about Mai and Ty Lee, curious to find out what had happened to them after they had been kicked out of Li and Lo's. Some of the girls seemed to know that Mai and her family were still in Caldera City, she had simply transferred to another, less posh boarding school. As for Ty Lee, the rumor was that her family had left the Fire Nation entirely. That seemed very extreme to Azula. Had her father done something to encourage them to leave? It seemed like a completely overblown reaction.

With little else to do around the estate, Azula persisted with her preparations for the upcoming Pai Sho U18 finals in March. With so much spare time on her hands, she had gone as far as to create little dossiers on each of her opponents, where she put down all of her insights on their strengths and weaknesses. It was a fun little exercise, even though it made Azula occasionally feel like a serial killer, researching her prey. But it was actually a rather apt comparison. After all, she was preparing to murder her opposition at the Pai Sho board.

When putting the dossiers together, she had also marked several of them with red crosses. These were the players she was most looking forward to beating. First among them were the wild card owners. She truly detested this practice. Those who couldn't qualify on merit just didn't deserve to have a spot in the finals as far as Azula was concerned. Yue Taqqiq and Chan Takahashi were on her little list of priority targets because they were talentless hacks who needed the support of their wealthy parents to mingle with the actual talented players who had earned their place in the tournament. Azula was particularly disgusted that Chan had made it in, and she had tried to convince her father to influence the organizing committee not to give Chan the spot. She had heard that the mayor of Yu Dao was also eager to get the wild card spot for his daughter because Kori Morishita had come only sixth in the Earth Kingdom qualifiers. Still, either Chan's family had outbid the competition, or perhaps the organizers had simply made the decision based on blind patriotism, but either way, Chan Takahashi was in and Kori Morishita was out. Azula promised herself that after their match, Chan would be left wishing he'd rather stayed at home.

Another name Azula had crossed in red was that of Katara Enuaraq. The dramatic loss in the final round of the last year's tournament still stung. It wasn't that she disliked Katara on a personal level. She was completely ambivalent towards the Water Tribe girl. Katara was nothing to Azula, but she still badly wanted to avenge that loss. Katara had won the Water Tribe qualifiers rather impressively, but come the finals, Azula would make sure that she was going down in flames.

Next on the list of Azula's targets was Zirin Sakai. This was deeply personal. Yes, Zirin was sending her roughly two apology letters per week, and yes, perhaps Azula even believed that Zirin regretted the whole failed robbery, but Azula also knew that Zirin wouldn't be groveling like this if the plan for her sister to rob the Nakamura mansion had succeeded. Azula still wasn't in a forgiving mood when it came to Zirin, and she often felt as if she had let her sister June off way too easily. If Zirin dared to show her face at the finals, Azula would make sure to utterly destroy her at the Pai Sho board, along with some creative post-victory digs to further humiliate the older girl.

But the most important target on Azula's hit list was, of course, her brother Zuko. As the reigning U18 champion, Zuko probably felt confident about repeating his success a year later. Azula was determined to do whatever she could to make sure that Zuko would not be celebrating at the end of the tournament. First of all, it wasn't even fair that he was still competing under the Fire Nation flag. The only times Zuko had come back to the Fire Nation since the divorce of their parents was to play in the qualifying tournaments. Why hadn't her father pushed some of the politicians to strip Zuko and Ursa of their Fire Nation citizenship? Zuko was just taking away a spot from actual patriotic Fire Nation citizens. Zuko and Ursa had been living in the Earth Kingdom for more than four years by now. As far as Azula was concerned, Zuko should have been officially representing the Earth Kingdom.

Azula had studied Zuko's games from the previous tournaments until she knew most of them by heart. By now, she had a good understanding of her brother's style of play. Zuko was a very strong player, she had to grudgingly admit that much, but he wasn't invincible. Azula was coming up with more and more ideas of how to rattle her brother. Come the spring, she would be ready to prove once and for all who was the more promising and talented of the Nakamura children.

Next chapter: The U18 finals are finally here and the competitors gather in Caldera City for yet another dramatic tournament!

Chapter Text

Stepping off the plane at Caldera City's Roku Airport, Katara, Sokka and Yue were immediately assaulted by the blistering Fire Nation heat. The entire airport terminal felt like a giant cooking pan, the glass and metal structure heated by the afternoon blaze. The small group of three could not get out of there fast enough, absolutely drenched in sweat by the time they made it to the hall of arrivals, piling up on a shaded bench to catch their breaths and discuss their next steps.

"Bloody hell, it's called the Fire Nation for a reason!" Sokka exclaimed, gulping down mouthfuls of water before passing the battle over to his sister.

"Yes, and the real summer is still a few months off," Yue nodded, emptying her own bottle of water. "Let's hope it's just the lack of ventilation inside the terminal and it's not actually this hot outside, because this is way worse than Kyoshi Island in the summer."

"I had no idea what weather to dress for," Katara admitted, having sated her immediate thirst. "We probably could have dressed a lot lighter, although then we would have frozen in Agna Qel'a."

"We'll sort all of that out once we get to the hotel," Yue said. "I'm sure it'll be fine… as long as we don't have to play in such a heat."

"Maybe that's the secret plan of the organizers to put you at a disadvantage," Sokka mused, quickly coming up with a conspiracy theory. "Who benefits from all this heat? The Fire Nation kids! Yep, this is all arranged to make it harder for you to compete against the locals."

Katara and Yue exchanged stares before bursting into laughter. "Sure, Sokka… the organizers arranged for a heat wave to hit in late March, that makes complete sense," Katara rolled her eyes.

"It might make it harder for us, Water Tribe girls, but it would be the same problem for the Fire Nation kids coming to play in Agna Qel'a," Yue shrugged. "We just have to deal with it. Besides, I'm sure they will have comfortable conditions at the hotel."

"Speaking of the hotel, how do we get there?" Sokka asked. "Hotel Royal, wasn't it?" Both girls nodded at him. "I can go and find out which bus can take us there."

"Sokka, wait," Yue spoke up quickly before her boyfriend had run off. "Let's just take a cab. I'll pay for it. I don't want to squish with hordes of other people on the bus. That would be just awful in this heat wave. And then there's all this luggage," Yue pointed at their bags.

"Thanks, Yue," Katara shot her best friend a look of gratitude. It felt so amazing to hang out with Yue again, at the start of another tournament and hopefully two unforgettable weeks. Katara had tried to convince her father that Sokka's presence wasn't necessary, that she didn't need her brother's protection and that she and Yue could manage perfectly well on their own. Her arguments had fallen on deaf ears and Sokka still ended up traveling with them. Eventually, Katara ended up softening her stance on Sokka's presence. He did deserve to spend some time with his girlfriend, after all.

Katara also tried not to stay angry at her father for not siding with her. Hakoda, as well as the majority of the Water Tribe population, were quite adamant and rigid in their support of traditional gender roles. Hakoda just didn't quite understand why Katara would be upset about him insisting that a young woman might need the protection of her older brother. The argument that sending Sokka with her would be a financial burden on the family was quashed because the tournament organizers ended up providing Katara's travel and accommodation costs at their own expense, which meant that the funds set aside for Katara could now be used to send Sokka to Caldera City with them.

So, the three of them were once again traveling and hanging out together, with Katara having to occasionally expend extra effort to try and reign in her envy and jealousy. And she had to admit, Yue was very good at sensing any building tensions and defusing them. She was doing a very admirable job at splitting her attention between the two siblings to maintain peace and calm.

"Alright, then… shall we go check out this hotel of ours?" Sokka asked, starting to collect their luggage.

"That sounds like a good idea," Yue nodded. "Later, once we have settled in, I thought we could go out and have some ice cream and a round of drinks. You know, as a way to celebrate the start of the tournament. Let me treat you both, okay?"

"That's a great idea, Yue," Katara beamed at the other girl. "I think it will make for a great start to hopefully two amazing weeks."

Azula snapped back to reality with a startled gasp, having overheard her father's voice out in the hallway, calling her name. She quickly shoved the book she had been reading under the pillow on her bed and scrambled to sit down at the Pai Sho board on the nearby table, pretending to be wholly immersed in her preparations. There had been so much preparation over the course of the past months that she was getting a little sick of it, despite wholly realizing its importance.

She had just about managed to settle in at the table when the doors to her room opened and her father entered, looking prim and proper as always, dressed in one of his traveling suits. The Ba Sing Se Open tournament was scheduled to begin in three days and her father was determined to defend the title he had won convincingly two years ago. This meant that for the second straight tournament, Azula would not have Ozai sitting in the VIP lodge in the stands, observing her every move as she faced off against her opponents. It was actually a comforting thought, even though it made her feel guilty and very ungrateful. It wasn't her father's fault that his presence was stressing her out. It was Azula's fault for being so mentally weak. She really did need to toughen up.

"I am getting ready to leave, Azula," Ozai spoke up. "I wanted to make sure if there was anything you needed before I left."

"I think I have everything I need, father," Azula replied obediently. "Thank you."

"Alright, good," Ozai nodded curtly. "Now, let's talk about my expectations for you. This is your first year at the U18's and you will be facing some of the best talent of your generation. Many of these older kids have the kind of experience at these tournaments that you don't yet possess. So, for the first time since you are competing against others, I do not expect you to bring home the gold medal, although it would be nice to be pleasantly surprised."

Azula blinked, feeling genuinely surprised. This was strangely generous coming from her father. "I expect myself to win, father," she stated confidently.

"Good, that is good. Always aim for the top spot, obviously, or you might as well not even compete," Ozai nodded. "However, I do have a very specific goal in mind for you, Azula, one that I fully expect you to fulfill." Azula waited patiently for Ozai to continue. "Your wretched brother is the tournament favorite, at least according to the bookmakers. To have Zuko win the gold medal on Fire Nation soil…" Ozai's face twisted with rage. "Unacceptable!" he exclaimed angrily. "You will do whatever you must to prevent this from happening, Azula."

"I will destroy Zuko when we face against each other," Azula nodded eagerly. She didn't need her father's encouragement when it came to defeating Zuko. She was plenty motivated already.

"That's the bare minimum of what I'm expecting from you, Azula," Ozai said firmly. "If that is not enough to stop Zuko from winning the tournament, be on a lookout for opportunities to foil your brother away from the Pai Sho board. You are a clever girl. Perhaps you can think of a way to unsettle him."

"I can do that," Azula nodded. Riling up Zuko had once been a favorite pastime of hers and she was exceptionally good at getting a reaction from her brother. Azula was very confident about being able to hit some of Zuko's pressure points and get him fuming with rage… which would definitely put him in the wrong frame of mind for a game of Pai Sho.

"Good, I look forward to seeing the results," Ozai smiled at her, a cruel grin full of anticipation. "Of course, you realize that should Zuko win the tournament…"

"I would deserve nothing else but the worst kind of punishment," Azula obediently bowed her head. She hadn't experienced one of her father's savage beatings for months. It was the longest she could remember going on without being punished. She had become much better at pleasing her father, and she was desperate for that streak of good fortune to continue.

"Exactly, and I am glad that we are of one mind on this, my daughter," Ozai seemed satisfied with her response. "There's something else I want to ask of you, Azula. You are aware how at the commercial tournaments, Zhao and I tend to study our games together. Having another pair of eyes in the process can provide some very valuable insights. I want you to find a sparring partner among your competitors, someone with whom to go over your games and analyze them."

Azula immediately began to panic. "But I'm not used to a sparring partner," she tried to protest. "Besides, the others all hate me!"

"I'm sure that's not true. They are simply jealous of you, Azula. They want to be like you," Ozai told her. "Besides, you don't have to become friends with them. Manipulate them if you must, do whatever it takes to get what you need from them."

"If… if I must," Azula sighed. She didn't like this at all. Azula much preferred leaving straight after finishing her game and not interacting with the other competitors. And obviously, she looked down on most of the other contestants. What could losers like Joo Dee, Chan or that paraplegic Earth Kingdom kid teach her?

"You must, Azula. I insist," Ozai sounded very adamant about this. Azula realized that he would make sure afterwards whether she had followed his request or not, which left her with no choice. She would have to find someone, a sparring partner to practice with. "You may think that studying your games all by yourself is enough, but it really isn't. That's why professional players have coaches and support staff. I want you to get a taste of what it would be like to work on your preparations with a team. This isn't a frivolous fancy or a whim of mine, daughter. This is important for your career as a Pai Sho professional, which is why I expect you to honor my request."

"Of course, father. I will do as you ask, as always," Azula replied, bowing her head respectfully.

"Good, see that you do," Ozai said, appearing satisfied. "You may come and bid me farewell, daughter."

Azula quickly rose from the table and ran up to her father to embrace him. "Good luck with your tournament, father," she spoke, feeling his father's arms closing around her shoulders. She was almost able to draw a feeling of safety from the embrace. Months without suffering violent beatings had helped to put her more at ease around Ozai, but she didn't feel completely comfortable with physical contact just yet. Azula still remained quite tense in her father's embrace. She knew that all of this tension was completely of her own making, though. It was there only because she had failed her father so much in the past. In the future, she was determined never to fail again. That was the way to ensure a good relationship with her father, and Azula wanted nothing more than that.

Katara had a rocky start to her tournament. She had the misfortune of drawing Haru Tamang in the first round, and she had lost rather hopelessly. Katara had rebounded in the next round, scoring a very nice and morale boosting victory against an older Fire Nation girl, Zirin Sakai. Then came Round 3, and Katara found herself facing off against her nemesis of the two previous years, none other than Azula Nakamura, no doubt thirsting revenge for last year's stinging loss.

The young Water Tribe prodigy had been relieved to see Azula among the competitors, looking well and untroubled, impeccably dressed and acting with her usual snooty arrogance. Katara would have normally been annoyed by the attitude, but considering what she had learned about Azula's relationship with her father, Katara felt like cutting the other girl some slack. So, when at the start of their game, Azula showed no interest in exchanging any phrases of politeness, simply sitting down at the Pai Sho board and getting on with the game, Katara had shrugged, smiled and proceeded with her move.

As always in an important tournament like this, Katara kept up with the scores of the other participants, just to know where everyone was mentally, who was coming off a crushing loss and who was soaring high on the wave of an emphatic victory. So far, Azula's score mirrored hers. Azula had opened with a loss to Hahn Adjuk, having looked seriously angry about that outcome. But then she had rebounded with an impressive win over Chan Takahashi, so both of them were coming into this game riding the high of a stellar victory in their previous game.

Their game began much how everyone in the audience would have expected it to unfold, with Azula going on the offensive and Katara defending skillfully. It was very tense going for a long stretch of the middle game, before something unexpected happened. Katara went on a sudden counterattack that took Azula completely by surprise. Within a half dozen moves, the situation on the Pai Sho board had changed completely and Katara was now dominating, with Azula's tile structure threatening to break.

Katara was certain that she had Azula on the ropes now. She could already see the tournament referees adding another notch to her win column, but then the game took yet another surprising turn. Azula's defensive position bent, but it didn't break. Katara could not find the knockout blow to punch through and seal the deal. Somehow, Azula was defending with a dogged determination and skill that Katara had never witnessed from the Fire Nation girl.

They were well past fifty moves and approaching sixty, both of them starting to run out of time. The other games had all ended by now and the other competitors had gathered around their table to watch this back-and-forth contest, standing a respectable distance away so as not to bother the two girls. Having somehow managed to walk the tightrope on defense, it was very late in the middle game that Azula counterattacked again. This time, Katara had no answer. She was both mentally and physically exhausted by now, and she could not fend off Azula's decisive breakthrough. On the sixty-ninth move, Katara reached out and stopped the timing clock in surrender, accepting her defeat.

Katara had almost expected Azula to get up and rudely walk away without even acknowledging her, so she was pleased when the Fire Nation girl actually reached out to shake her hand, looking both relieved and impressed. "That was a great game, thank you," Katara said politely. "Even though I lost, this was one of the most fun games I've ever played."

Azula briefly nodded at her. It almost looked as if she wanted to say something? Katara was sure that she had only imagined it, though. This was Azula Nakamura. She never spoke with those beneath her, unless it was to insult or berate them. Katara smiled and turned around to leave.

"Excuse me?" Katara froze at Azula's voice stopping the Water Tribe girl dead in her tracks.

She turned around to look at Azula, finding the other girl standing there, unusually fidgety, almost nervous. "Yes?" Katara asked, hoping that she sounded welcoming. Azula Nakamura was speaking to her, and presumably wasn't trying to insult her. This was something rare and unheard of. She had to find out what it was all about. "Can I help you?"

"Perhaps," Azula nodded. She was looking hesitant and a little conflicted. "I wanted to ask you something."

"Sure, go ahead," Katara tried an encouraging smile. It seemed to work. Azula appeared far less tense and nervous.

"Would you like to go over our game again?" Azula asked. The words came out so fast from Azula's mouth that Katara could barely understand what she was being asked.

Katara blinked in surprise. She hadn't expected that. Azula was supposedly closely tutored by her father. "I'm sorry, but I'm confused," she confessed. "Do you mean like… doing post-match analysis? Together?"

"Yes, that is what I meant. Did I stutter?" Azula replied. She was sounding more anxious again, even annoyed. Katara was still a little stunned that Azula would even ask something like that. Katara was aware that she was gaping like an idiot. "Alright, fine, I get it," Azula snapped. Her cheeks had turned slightly pinkish as she sharply turned around to walk away.

"Hey! Wait! Azula, wait!" Katara snapped out of her stupor and chased after the other girl. She was remarkably fast considering the height of her heels. Katara was sure she'd face-plant after taking only a couple of steps in those stilettos. "I didn't say I wouldn't do it, okay?" she finally got Azula to stop and listen. "Why did you assume that I would say no?"

"Because that is what all the others have told me when I asked them," Azula shrugged. The color in her cheeks intensified. "They were quite unpleasant about it, in fact."

Katara swallowed the obvious reply that perhaps if Azula would be a little nicer to the others, she wouldn't have faced this kind of response. Then again, she had probably asked her first two opponents, Hahn and Chan. As far as Katara was concerned, Hahn was a certified asshole. She didn't know Chan, but first impressions suggested that he was definitely of the same mold as Hahn. Perhaps the responses Azula had gotten hadn't been her fault after all. She wasn't the only nasty teenager around.

"Alright, let's go over the game, then. It could be fun," Katara nodded, realizing that this might be an interesting and rare opportunity to get to know the reclusive Fire Nation prodigy. The timing couldn't be better, either. Tomorrow was the first off-day of the tournament, and Katara would be going out to explore Caldera City together with Yue and Sokka. Katara had planned to do all of her prep work tonight, while Yue went out on a date with Sokka. Perhaps analyzing the game with Azula could be a productive part of her prep. "Shall we sit down?" she asked, pointing at one of the empty tables in the hall.

Azula looked around the hall, frowning. It was still quite packed with people as the spectators were not in any hurry to disperse. Some of the contestants were also still around, chatting with the fans for one reason or another. At least during the early rounds there was very little presence from journalists covering the event, but the spectators still formed a considerable crowd. "Perhaps we could go somewhere quieter," Azula suggested uncertainly. "I can switch out the crowds when I'm playing, but it takes an effort. When I'm analyzing my games, I prefer a more informal and relaxed setting."

Katara nodded, smiling. "That's exactly how I feel, too," she said. It was probably one of the very few things they had in common, but it still felt nice to find something they could agree on. It just helped her to further humanize Azula.

"I suppose I could invite you over to the estate," Azula said. "My father said he wouldn't mind. Besides, he's traveling right now." Oh. Well, that explains the need for a sparring partner.

Katara was very tempted to accept the offer. She was deeply curious to see the Nakamura estate and the luxury of Azula's living conditions. She was certain that the wealth of the Nakamuras would leave her utterly astounded. However, Katara still felt a little wary of Azula and all the probably exaggerated horror stories surrounding her. It wasn't that she expected Azula to have a collection of severed heads of all those who had defeated her at the Pai Sho board, but still, Katara wanted to get to know Azula a little better before she accepted an invitation to visit her at home. "That might be nice, but how about we just go up to my hotel room?" Katara suggested then. "It's a lot closer."

Azula paused for a moment before replying. It made Katara wonder whether Azula was having similar doubts about being alone with her. The thought seemed so ridiculous that it nearly made Katara burst out with laughter. "Alright, we can do that," Azula finally agreed, much to Katara's relief.

They proceeded to the nearby elevator which had been made available to use only for the competitors and tournament organizers. It allowed them to come and go without having to pass through the gaggle of spectators packed at the other end of the hall. Within a couple of minutes, Katara had unlocked the doors to her hotel room, allowing Azula to step inside. Katara quickly undid the straps on her blue Mary Jane's, watching Azula kick off her red stilettos before heading deeper into the room. She couldn't help but notice the other girl's perfect burgundy red painted toenails. It was simple details like these that made Katara feel so plain in comparison.

Inside the room, Azula was looking around, appearing displeased. "Is this what they give to the contestants?" she frowned deeply. "Unacceptable. I should speak with my father to give hell to the organizing committee."

"This seems perfectly fine to me," Katara shrugged. "And this is the first year we're being provided rooms at no cost. But I imagine that you are used to better accommodations."

"Of course, I would not consider anything but a penthouse suite," Azula nodded. "This is barely fit to serve as a wardrobe." Katara elected not to comment that her room back home was smaller than this particular hotel room. Azula walked around the room, scowling. "It doesn't even have a proper table. Where are we supposed to lay out the Pai Sho board?"

"We can just sit on the bed," Katara shrugged. Azula gave her a frown, hesitating. "Well, I'm sorry that this isn't to your liking, but there's nothing I can do to fix it now, so either we make do with this or-"

"Fine," Azula huffed. Before sitting down on the bed, she walked over to the mini fridge and retrieved a bottle of mineral water. "What? I'm thirsty," she shrugged in response to Katara's stare.

"I will have to pay for that, you know," Katara pointed out.

"Oh." Azula dug into her leather purse and pulled out a few banknotes, leaving them on top of the fridge. Katara could already see that it was at least ten times more than the cost of the water bottle.

"Money just doesn't mean anything to you, does it?" she asked, feeling mildly astonished.

Azula shrugged again. "There's a reason why my family is wealthy. My father is the smartest and wisest man I know, and he works extremely hard. My father says that nobody reasonably intelligent should be poor, and if they are poor then it's because they lack motivation and drive. Father once told me that poverty is something only lazy people have to deal with," she stated with an imperious air.

"I'm fifteen!" Katara exclaimed. "Do you even know where I live and what kind of prospects are there for me in my home village? Do you see me as an oil rig worker, a fisherwoman or a whaler? Cape Kuruk isn't exactly a wellspring of exciting opportunities! Maybe if your father offered fair payment to his oil rig operators, my family would not have to struggle."

"If someone isn't happy about the privilege of working for the Nakamura Industries they can just quit. Slavery has been abolished a long time ago, last I checked," Azula replied with a haughty frown. "But you make a fair point. Perhaps I don't know enough about your circumstances. Still, you don't need to get so upset about it."

Well, maybe you should just stop saying stupid entitled shit! That was what Katara wanted to yell back at Azula, but she just about managed to hold herself in check. She let out a heavy sigh, rubbing her brow. Good grief, this girl could be so exasperating! "I am not upset," she forced herself to ground out. "Besides, I thought we wanted to go over our game. Shall we?" she pointed at the bed.

Azula nodded, climbing into the bed and elegantly tucking her legs under her. Meanwhile, Katara retrieved her gifted walrus ivory Pai Sho set and brought it over, sitting down with Azula on the bed. "That is a lovely set of tiles," Azula noticed immediately, looking impressed.

"Thank you," Katara smiled. For some reason, it felt rewarding to have impressed Azula. Also, it seemed that Azula was capable of extending a compliment. "It was a Solstice gift from the family."

"I guess they must like you," Azula said.

Katara blinked. Like you? That's a weird thing to say about your family. Surely, there should be a natural expectation of being loved by your family? "Yes, we are all very close," Katara spoke in a neutral voice. Family was clearly a touchy subject for Azula and needed to be handled carefully.

"I'm sure you have heard enough about me to know that it's not the same for me and my family," Azula said. She then sharply shook her head, as if to clear her mind from whatever thoughts had penetrated it. "Anyway, we should be focusing on the game instead of talking nonsense," she immediately changed the topic, withdrawing her notebook with the written down notation of Pai Sho moves, Katara retrieving her own notation.

Soon enough, they were deeply immersed in the complicated middle game of their earlier contest, reaching the point where Katara had launched her unexpected counter-offensive. "This combination took me by surprise," Azula admitted. "But I don't think you chose the best move to finish it. You could have ended the game here."

"Hmm… I'm not seeing it," Katara frowned.

"Try harder. I know you're not stupid," Azula said. Katara looked up from the Pai Sho board to glare at the other girl. Then she realized that coming from Azula that was probably meant as a compliment. "Alright, fine, I'll give you a clue," Azula sighed. "I can see that you have improved your offense, but you're still not committing fully. Think even more aggressively."

"Huh… alright, let me think for a moment," Katara said, raising her hand to stop Azula from saying anything else. "Don't tell me, I need to figure this out on my own." Azula shrugged, placing her hands in her lap, toying with the water bottle as she patiently waited for Katara to spot the winning move. "Wait a minute," Katara eventually recognized the missed opportunity. "I could have pulled back my White Jade to create a harmony with the Lily, and then used the Wheel to move my Orchid over there… and now it's forking your Lily and Jasmine! How did I not see it?"

"It is not an easy move to spot. I did not notice the possibility during the game," Azula shrugged. "We were both starting to struggle for time, too. Still, you had more opportunities to finish the game, but you really let me off the hook."

"I think I was just taken aback by the fact that you were defending so skillfully," Katara admitted. "Although, I could tell that you didn't always choose the best move either. But let's go through everything in order, shall we?"

"Of course, analyzing a game isn't something you should rush," Azula agreed. She was about to say more, but at that moment there was a knock on the doors. Before Katara could answer, Sokka and Yue had burst in, full of giggles, then freezing in surprise upon realizing that Katara had a guest. Their shock and surprise only grew once they realized who it was.

"What are you doing here, guys?" Katara asked, a little annoyed at the interruption. She noticed that Azula had become very tense all of a sudden. "I thought you were going out!"

"Yeah, but Yue decided to ask if you wanted to tag along after all," Sokka said. He sounded like he hadn't agreed with that decision. "We had no idea that you would be hanging out with Azula Nakamura."

"We are not hanging out, as you so crudely put it," Azula glared at Sokka. "We are doing important work analyzing the game. Not that you would know anything about that."

"Sokka might not realize the importance of preparation, but I do," Yue smiled at the two girls sitting on the bed. "Hi, Azula."

"Hello, Yue," Azula replied, with barely any venom, unlike when responding to Sokka.

"The big lug is my brother Sokka," Katara said by the way of belated introductions.

"Oh," Azula's eyes widened slightly as she glanced at Sokka. "I didn't realize. You don't look nowhere near as smart as your sister."

"Wow, thanks," Sokka huffed angrily.

Katara put an open palm against her forehead, letting out another heavy sigh. Politeness was clearly not Azula's strong suit. "Guys, maybe you should just get on with your date," she told both Sokka and Yue. "We can talk later, alright?"

"Of course, Katara," Yue smiled at her, while Sokka gave her a pointed stare that seemed to say something along the lines of 'we are definitely discussing this later'. Katara didn't understand the reaction. Did Sokka seriously believe that he had to protect her from the big bad Azula Nakamura? Azula was quite harmless as far as Katara was concerned. She simply didn't have a filter and had absolutely no idea how offensive she could come off to other people.

"Let's get back to what we were doing, shall we?" Katara asked once Sokka and Yue had left her and Azula alone again.

Azula nodded and they returned their attention to the game. Azula was failing to keep her attention on the game, however. "Your brother doesn't like you having me around?" she asked a while later.

"No, he just sometimes gets overprotective, and that can make him a bit stupid," Katara rolled her eyes. She almost wanted to continue with 'you know how older brothers can be', before catching herself. Zuko seemed to really hate his sister, and Katara suspected that Azula harbored similar feelings for her older sibling. For someone like Katara, used to having a big brother she could always rely on, the relationship between Azula and Zuko felt quite depressing. "Don't worry about him, he's harmless," she said instead.

"Alright," Azula nodded, appearing slightly relieved, but she still seemed a little twitchy and nervous for some reason.

Katara decided to say something encouraging. "Besides, I'm having fun doing this," she smiled at the other girl. "I feel like we can learn a lot from each other."

Azula seemed pleased to hear it. "Then you'd like to do this again?" she asked.

"Sure," Katara nodded. Azula wasn't actually a terrible person to spend time with, especially if they could just focus on Pai Sho and not talk about some of the stuff Azula was clearly ignorant about. "Not on the off-days though, I want to hang out with Sokka and Yue. But maybe we can go to your estate on one of the match days."

"Good," Azula actually managed a smile. "My father would have been displeased if I failed to find a sparring partner to practice with."

"Oh, I see," Katara remarked. Asking more about Azula's father seemed like a dangerous path of conversation, but she couldn't let the opportunity pass. "Just how displeased would he be with you, Azula?"

A shadow fell over Azula's face, but she quickly schooled her expression into a controlled mask of neutrality. "It doesn't matter. Forget I said anything. I shouldn't discuss my father behind his back," her voice carried deep reverence, or was it fear? "Let's just focus on the game, alright? We still have so much to cover."

"Of course, Azula," Katara agreed, swallowing a sigh. As she had suspected, Azula's relationship with her father was definitely a very sensitive topic of conversation.

Next chapter: Azula meets an old friend, and afterwards makes an unexpected request of Katara.

Chapter Text

After a relaxing off-day, the U18 World Junior Championships resumed with the competitors refreshed and ready to do battle once again. Azula's first opponent after the break in play was Joo Dee, and much like in their previous games, Long Feng's daughter failed to last more than thirty moves against Azula's assault. With three wins out of four games, Azula had felt elated and perhaps a little overconfident when facing Yue Taqqiq in Round 5. Azula had never experienced any troubles in her past games with Yue, however, on this occasion, she found herself stymied and suffocated by the other Water Tribe girl, suffering an unexpected loss that knocked her way down in the rankings.

Azula felt a little frustrated ahead of her Round 6 match, both because of her performance in the previous round, but also because of who she was going to face, none other than Zirin Sakai. Zirin had tried to approach her at least on four different occasions already, presumably with yet more apologies for the events of last autumn. Azula had dismissed all of her previous attempts to apologize and she was determined not to forgive the older girl for her betrayal. Not to mention that Azula didn't need Zirin anymore. After all, she had made a new friend. Or at least, Azula hoped that Katara Enuaraq considered herself to be Azula's friend. Azula wasn't sure and she was much too nervous to ask.

Following Round 4, they had spent another afternoon in Katara's hotel room, going over their games and picking them apart, looking for ways to improve their selection of moves. Katara had won against Teo Guyuk in Round 4 and then against Ghashiun al-Alawi in the following round, so she had been in a jubilant mood when Azula had asked her to come over to her estate following Round 5. Azula had enjoyed herself a great deal, impressing Katara with the splendor of her estate. She could see that the Water Tribe girl had never been exposed to such wealth before. Of course, being poor and not having access to the best available education, meant that Katara was somewhat of a philistine and failed to be properly impressed by some of the valuable artwork that Ozai had gathered at the estate over the years. But at least Katara was a fan of The Twilight Zone and had loved all the crazy posters Azula had in her bedroom, so maybe she wasn't so bad after all.

Honestly, Katara was a rather interesting girl and quite unlike anyone Azula had interacted with in the past. She supposed that Ty Lee was a little bit like Katara, but there were some notable differences. Azula often got the feeling that Ty Lee was just nodding along to whatever she was saying, even when she had no clue what Azula was going on about, just agreeing with everything on principle. Katara tried to understand what Azula was saying, and if she didn't understand, then she asked, not caring whether Azula thought that she was stupid for asking or not. Azula could never remember an occasion where Katara would have just nodded along, pretending that she understood.

Of course, Katara could still get upset a little too quickly, which really was a big problem for most of the people Azula tried to talk to. But at least when Katara got upset, she never ended up screaming at her, unlike some other people. Katara was patient and tried to explain what was so upsetting about Azula's words, and why Azula shouldn't just blurt out whatever came to her mind just because she thought it was the truth. It seemed ridiculous to Azula, but at the same time, she found herself subconsciously starting to make an effort not to say things that she had discovered would make Katara annoyed with her. It was almost like when conversing with her father, but for different reasons. With Ozai, Azula had to be very careful with what she said because she wanted to avoid being punished. With Katara, she was careful with what she said because… well, she wanted Katara to keep spending time with her. It was as simple as that. Azula hadn't had a friend for almost two years. She thought she had made a friend in Zirin, but that had turned into a disaster. She wondered if Katara would disappoint and betray her as well, but so far, she hadn't noticed a single sign of deception from the Water Tribe girl.

Facing Zirin in Round 6, Azula used the same psychological trick that she had used back in autumn, arriving a couple of minutes late for the start of the game and denying Zirin the opportunity to try and exchange some words with her. As Azula sat down at the Pai Sho board, pointedly ignoring Zirin, she could see that she had already given away six minutes of her time. It didn't matter. She was utterly confident of being able to crush Zirin, exploiting the guilt that the other girl still felt for what she had done. Her assumptions proved to be correct quite quickly. Zirin just couldn't bring her A-game against Azula. Her position was hopeless by the early middle-game and on the twenty-ninth move Zirin accepted the inevitable and stopped the timing clock.

Azula immediately got up to leave without shaking Zirin's hand, unwilling to give the other girl the opportunity to try and apologize yet again. However, much to Azula's annoyance, Zirin was very quick, reaching out to grab her hand and refusing to release it. Azula struggled for a moment, but with the other five games still going on nearby, she couldn't do much without risking creating unwanted attention and interrupting the other players. Two years her senior, Zirin was considerably stronger and shaking off her grip appeared all but impossible.

"Azula, please, all I'm asking is a minute of your time," Zirin spoke quietly. "Or else I'm going to scream and create some crazy drama that will embarrass us both."

"Ugh… fine then, as you wish," with no way out, Azula was forced to agree. They stepped aside, away from both the spectators and their fellow contestants, finding some privacy near the elevators. "You do realize that I am under no obligation to forgive you for what you did," Azula snarled as soon as they found themselves alone.

"I understand that, but I still hope that you will forgive me, if not now, then eventually," Zirin spoke. There seemed to be genuine sadness in her voice that Azula tried to convince herself of being fake. "But I also wanted to thank you, Azula."

"Thank me? What for?" Azula blinked.

"June's digits never healed properly and so she no longer has the necessary finger dexterity to continue in her old line of work," Zirin explained quickly. "But it's a blessing in disguise. I've long since begged her to find a safer way to make money. Because of this, she had no choice but to find a more honest way to make a living. It's hard going and we're not making as much as we were when she could still do the occasional you know what job, but at least this is honest living."

"Well, isn't that great. I'm so happy for you both," Azula rolled her eyes. She hadn't expected to be thanked by Zirin. This was a strange development. She hated to admit it, but it did take away some of the sting of Zirin's betrayal. "So, are we done here?" she asked, forcing herself to sound unsympathetic.

Zirin let out a heavy sigh. "Sure, I suppose I still deserve that," she conceded. "Azula, you have to know that I'm never going to stop apologizing. Not until you have forgiven me. So, if there is anything I can do to help you forgive me, please, tell me."

"Ugh, why is it so important to you whether I hate you or not?" Azula snapped irately. "Most of the people in this hall hate my guts, but do I care about that? No, I do not! Why can't you just be like that, too, instead of pestering me about this ridiculous apology?"

"Because I like you, Azula, don't you get it?" Zirin asked desperately. "I really, really like you!"

Despite herself, Azula found her cheeks burning slightly. She stole a peek at Zirin, angry at herself for how attractive she still found the other girl, with those intense dark eyes, the slightly upturned nose and the cute, freckled cheeks. "That just makes it worse that you would pull something like that on someone you claim to like," Azula quickly recovered to point out.

"I know," Zirin admitted. "And that's why I am so desperate for your forgiveness."

"If I promise to think about it, will you leave me alone for the rest of the tournament?" Azula sighed. Zirin nodded vehemently. "Fine, then here is my solemn promise to think about it," Azula said. "Now, are we finally done?"

"Of course, Azula… and thank you," Zirin smiled in relief before turning around and entering the elevator, leaving a frustrated Azula behind.

Left alone, Azula felt a little angry at herself. She hated how she still couldn't stop herself from being attracted to Zirin, despite what the other girl had done. Azula felt like she shouldn't forgive Zirin for her betrayal, but a part of her already knew that she would, and Azula ended up cursing what she thought was that weak part of her, the part that found Zirin so fetching and intriguing.

Unwilling to think any more about Zirin, Azula walked back to the main hall, casting a glance at how the other games were progressing. She was supposed to meet up with Katara after their games had ended, but Katara seemed to be locked in an almighty struggle with Ruon-Jian Ogawa, and it didn't look like their game would end anytime soon. Azula found herself slowly pacing around the hall, walking by the front row of the spectators, and with surprise noticing a very familiar face in the crowd. Their eyes met and suddenly Azula realized that someone she hadn't met in almost two years was making their way towards her.

"Mai? Is that really you?" Azula asked with disbelief, stepping closer to the barrier that separated the players from the spectators. The crowd appeared a little restless at Azula's approach, but fortunately the Pai Sho audience was generally very well behaved and intelligent, remaining respectful to the contestants who were still engaged in their ongoing games.

"It's really me, Azula," Mai replied, standing on the other side of the barrier. "I was hoping to somehow get your attention."

"What are you doing here, Mai?" Azula asked. "I didn't think you cared about Pai Sho. Did you come to see me play?"

"So typical of you to assume that," Mai chuckled sardonically. "No, I'm not interested in Pai Sho, and no, I didn't come to see you play. I came to watch my boyfriend play."

"You're dating one of the players?" Azula was genuinely surprised. "Please don't tell me it's Chan. It's Chan, isn't it…"

"It's not Chan," Mai snorted. "It's Ruon-Jian. He's way more fun, and besides, his family is loaded. It's a win-win for me."

"Right, good for you, Mai," Azula shrugged, glancing back at the stage and the large standing Pai Sho boards on which the games were being displayed for the audience. It seemed that Ruon-Jian was starting to slowly overpower Katara and the game would be coming to an end soon.

"But now that you have noticed me, we should definitely catch up, Azula," Mai suggested. "You have a day off tomorrow, right? Perhaps you would care to join me and Ruon for dinner? I'd ask you to bring someone for a double date, but I imagine that your father still doesn't allow you to see anyone."

"Shows how much you know," Azula snapped irately. She wasn't going to let Mai make fun or disrespect her like that. "I am so dating someone," she added without thinking, hating the idea of Mai thinking less of her.

"Well, isn't that wonderful?" Mai chuckled. It seemed like she didn't believe Azula, and Azula found it seriously annoying. "Well, how about you and your mystery date join me and Ruon for dinner tomorrow? 7pm at the hotel's restaurant?"

"Alright, we'll be there," Azula nodded, trying to project all the confidence she could muster, even as she was becoming aware that she really hadn't thought this through at all. "It was nice meeting you after so long, Mai."

"Same here, Azula," Mai managed a polite smile at her old friend. "We'll catch up properly tomorrow evening. Right now, I think Ruon might be done with his game. I should go and meet him by the exit."

"Alright, I'll see you tomorrow evening, Mai," Azula nodded at the other girl, turning to walk away from the spectator stands. As she watched Ruon pressing home the decisive advantage against Katara, Azula began to wonder just what she had gotten herself into. Mai had always managed to get her into trouble this way. All she needed to do was to claim that there was something Azula couldn't do, and Azula would then go out of her way to ridiculous extents just to prove Mai wrong. It was probably because Mai was a year older, and even though Azula objectively held all the power in their relationship, on some level, Azula still sought validation from the older girl. It seemed as if that hadn't changed, and Azula just couldn't admit that she was stuck being single while Mai was busy with her dating life.

And now this lie had put Azula into a bit of a pickle, as she suddenly found herself needing a date for tomorrow evening. And it wasn't that she had many options to choose from. She knew that Zirin would have happily filled the role, but that would have forced Azula to forgive Zirin before she was ready to do so. Besides, Zirin had already departed and Azula wasn't going to chase around the slums of Caldera City looking for the older girl. No, Zirin wasn't really an option, but as Azula watched Ruon-Jian and Katara shake hands following their game, the slightly disappointed looking Water Tribe girl noticing Azula and starting to walk towards her, Azula suddenly became aware of another option, even though it made her so nervous and weak in the knees that she found herself barely able to stand.

"Well, that didn't work out the way I had hoped," Katara managed a smile despite her obvious disappointment about the loss. "Congrats on your victory, though, that was fast! Where do you want to hang out today, my room or your place?"

"Wouldyougooutwithmetomorrow?" the words came out so fast that Azula didn't manage to stop them in time. Only after she had blurted out the question, did she blush like mad and slapped a palm across her treacherous lips.

"Ah… haha… for a moment I thought I heard you ask if I would go out with you," Katara laughed awkwardly, her eyes wide with astonishment. Noticing that Azula had become completely petrified from embarrassment, Katara also froze, only from the realization that she hadn't misheard. "Wait… you actually meant that?" Katara's cerulean eyes had gone impossibly wide by now.

This was quickly turning into a disaster, as far as Azula was convinced. She needed to salvage this quickly. "I… I'll pay you. Whatever you want! I'll give you three hundred, no, five hundred!" Azula exclaimed, panicking and starting to hyperventilate. "This is really important!" she insisted.

"Hold on, Azula, I don't want your money," Katara replied calmly, getting the better of her surprise. Azula was definitely not getting the better of her panic attack. "Why don't you start at the beginning? Just tell me what prompted you to ask me to go out with you. Just… just calm down and take a deep breath, okay?"

Azula did as she was told, taking a deep, calming breath which helped to steady the thundering in her chest and temples. It helped that Katara had this very soothing tone of voice which helped greatly to set Azula at ease. "Right, so… there's this girl, Mai," Azula eventually began to explain. "I hadn't seen her in two years before running into her just now. She was boasting about having a new boyfriend and… well, she made a mention about how my father wouldn't allow me to date. At that point, I might have lied to her about dating someone."

"And you're currently not dating anyone," Katara sought to clarify.

"No… no, Mai is right, my father wouldn't stand for it," Azula admitted. "I just… I don't even know why I said it. I just couldn't stand Mai shoving it in my face, I guess."

"I suppose I can sympathize with that," Katara admitted. "So… you're asking me to be your fake date for tomorrow evening?"

"Y-yes," Azula stuttered. She didn't enjoy how desperate she must have been appearing to Katara. "Please, I really need your help, Katara," she added, throwing her pride aside for the moment.

Katara's expression softened at her words. "Alright… this is seriously weird and I can't believe I'm agreeing to this, but fine. I'll play along," the Water Tribe girl agreed, looking bemused. "It clearly means a lot to you."

"It really does," Azula nodded. "Thank you so much, Katara. I'll find a way to make it up to you, I promise." She really meant that. This was a question of honor for her. "Of course, we'll have to cancel our prep for the afternoon because your wardrobe needs complete overhaul if you're going to be my fake date. I can't be seen going on a date with someone who looks like she has stepped out of the fashion catalogue from the previous decade."

Katara looked a little angry at that comment. "Wow, Azula, you really know how to make a girl feel appreciated," she snapped.

"Hmm?" Azula frowned. She needed a moment to figure out why Katara was annoyed about that statement. Oh right, she probably couldn't afford better clothes because her family didn't have enough money. It seemed that poor people reacted badly when they were made aware of their poverty. Azula always struggled to understand how someone could be offended by the simple pointing out of objective facts. It felt like self-delusion and denial of the truth. But she also didn't want to upset or annoy Katara. She'd just have to make sure not to say anything that reminded Katara about the bottomless pit between their respective social circles. "All I wanted to say is that we should go out and do some shopping. I will cover all the expenses, obviously. How about we go check out some real top of the line stuff?"

Katara's eyes lit up at Azula's suggestion. Azula realized that this was probably something that Katara had been dreaming about, but never had the money and the opportunity to pursue. Azula was pleased when the Water Tribe girl smiled and nodded at her. "Alright, now you're making this arrangement a lot more appealing," Katara grinned at her. "Alright, Azula… let's go shopping!"

An hour or so later, Azula and Katara arrived at the staggeringly immense complex of the Caldera Central Mall. Seeing that Katara was caught gazing around in useless wide-eyed wonder, Azula grabbed the other girl's hand and dragged her along to the nearest elevator, the pair emerging on the third floor where most of Azula's favorite boutique stores were located. This was where Azula spent most of the vast amounts of cash she received from her father. She suspected that some of the boutiques actually existed only because of her patronage and the exorbitant sums of money she spent on her clothes.

"Wow… this is a place where I could disappear for days," Katara looked around, appearing suitably impressed.

"I often do exactly that," Azula smirked. "Well, not for days, but I do spend a lot of my time here. I'm something of a celebrated patron in most of these stores."

"Why am I not surprised?" Katara laughed. "So… what part of my wardrobe needs changing?" she asked.

"Everything, obviously," Azula shrugged. Katara once again looked upset. Azula quickly tried to figure out what she had said wrong now. "Look, there is nothing wrong with your clothes as such, but I just want us to impress Mai, so we need something better. Hmm, although…" Azula stopped for a moment, regarding the Water Tribe girl. "I do love those sapphire stud earrings. You should keep wearing those."

For some reason, Katara blushed, appearing embarrassed. "The earrings are the only thing I haven't bought myself," she admitted. "They were a Solstice gift from Yue."

"That girl has good taste," Azula nodded in agreement.

"Maybe you should have asked her out instead of me, then," Katara snapped heatedly. "You probably would have gotten along better with another rich girl."

"Yes, I probably would," Azula agreed. "Do you think I should ask her? I thought that she was going out with your brother. Besides, we're already here, so why don't we just do some shopping?" Katara placed an open palm against her forehead, letting out a weary sigh. "Do you have a headache? I probably have some Tylenol on me," Azula said, about to start digging through her purse.

"I don't need Tylenol, I need you to stop saying so many dumb things or else this isn't going to work," Katara retorted. She sighed again. "Fine, let's just go and do some shopping. Where do you think we should start?"

Azula had started to worry about having said something wrong yet again, so she was only too happy to jump on Katara's invitation to get back to the business at hand. She pointed at the nearest store with soulless mannequins giving them dead stares from the display window. "Let's start there," Azula said.

As soon as they had entered the boutique, one of the shop assistants noticed Azula and excitedly ran towards her. "Miss Nakamura, what a pleasure to see you again!" the girl spoke, sounding eager to please. "Can I be assistance to you and your friend?"

"I may call on you later," Azula brushed the assistant aside. "We're going to browse for now." Azula wasn't going to let some shop assistant show off to Katara. No, if anyone was going to impress her new friend with their amazing sense of style and fashion, it was going to be Azula herself.

"Of course, Miss Nakamura, as you wish," the slightly disappointed assistant withdrew as Azula and Katara began to browse the isles stuffed with dresses.

"Just take whatever you like and we'll try out the whole lot of them," Azula told the other girl. After they had made the first pass through the isle, Azula was carrying eight different dresses with her, while Katara hadn't chosen a single one. "What's the matter? Selection of the most stylish designer dresses not good enough for you?" Azula glared at the Water Tribe girl.

"No, they're all very nice, it's just… they're either too colorful or too short," Katara replied, blushing lightly. "They just don't feel like me, you know?"

"Well, obviously. We don't want the dress to feel like you because you're unfashionable," Azula explained. Katara looked angry again. "Just try some of these on, alright? You might be pleasantly surprised," Azula said, quickly shoving the collection of dresses into Katara's arms and then pointing her towards the changing booth.

"You are such a tyrant," Katara complained, but she did step into the booth and Azula could soon hear the sounds of the other girl slipping out of her dress. Katara emerged shortly afterwards, wearing a bright green dress with colorful floral patterns. "You see what I mean? These colors don't fit me at all!"

"Alright, fine… I agree, this one doesn't suit you," Azula admitted reluctantly. "Despair not. I've been known to try close to seventy dresses before finding the one that's right for me. Try the next one!"

"Alright, slave driver," Katara sighed, stepping back into the changing booth. She emerged a minute later, wearing a colorful striped mini dress. Azula thought it looked perfectly acceptable, but Katara seemed uncomfortable for some reason. "I've never worn anything mini," Katara admitted, looking slightly embarrassed. "I just feel really weird wearing a short dress like that."

"But it's the latest fashion," Azula protested. "And you have the perfect legs to pull it off."

Katara's face turned an interesting shade of pink. "Stop that! You can't just say things like that!" she admonished Azula.

"But… it's the truth?" Azula blinked, taken aback. "Fine, I won't say the truth. You have horribly crooked, gangly legs with ugly, bulging veins."

"What? I so don't! How dare you?" Katara shouted at her.

"I thought you didn't want to hear the truth that you have really nice legs?" Azula wondered. Katara was such a strange girl of many contradictions.

"Argh!" Katara exclaimed and stomped right back into the changing booth.

After Katara had tried on about a dozen of different dresses and dismissed them all, Azula began to understand the problem. Katara was very conservative when it came to fashion choices, and the latest fashion trends were so daring that they were putting her right off. Azula would have to be clever about finding something that Katara would accept. Perhaps the trick lay in choosing the right colors. Katara didn't seem to like the brighter colors, and Azula had to admit that Katara was right about that. The brighter colors were clashing with her creamy chocolate skin. Pastel colors were far more suited to Katara's appearance and character.

Having told Katara to wait in the changing booth, Azula called the shop assistant over and briefly explained the issue. Less than a minute later, Azula handed Katara another dress to try on and then waited with bated breath for Katara to emerge. When Katara did so, Azula knew that they had a winner. Katara was probably going to kick up a fuss about how short the mini dress was, but the color scheme was just right, a swirling pattern of baby blue, peach and lavender stripes.

"What do you think?" Azula turned to the shop assistant.

"I think the young lady looks absolutely ravishing," the shop assistant nodded with conviction.

Katara blushed at the praise, nervously tugging on the hem of the dress. "I do like it, I just wish that it wasn't so short," she sighed.

"Tell her," Azula nodded at the assistant.

"Umm, this would actually be considered a slightly conservative dress, young lady," the shop assistant told Katara. "You are really pulling it off, though. It would be a crime to allow you to walk out of the store without this dress."

"Alright, fine… you've talked me into it," Katara admitted. Azula could not help but feel that her reluctance was very much faked.

"Excellent, we'll take it," Azula turned to the assistant. She then suddenly thought of something. "Wait a moment…" she said before dashing off and returning moments later with a pair of blue gloves and a matching purse, passing them over to Katara. The other girl put the gloves on, tucking the purse under her arm. It was a perfect match. "Yes, that's very good."

"Shall I just forward the bill the usual way?" the shop assistant asked.

"Of course," Azula nodded. Katara seemed to be so entranced by her appearance that she had forgotten to complain, posing in front of the mirror. That was a good sign, but Azula now needed the other girl to move. "Earth to Katara? Want to take the dress off so we can proceed?"

"Oh… oh, of course! Sorry!" a blushing Katara disappeared back into the changing booth, reemerging moments later wearing her plain old blue dress. The shop assistant quickly wrapped up their purchases. Azula gave them the number of Katara's hotel room for the delivery of the purchases and then they were on their way to the nearby shoe store.

Once there, Azula immediately began to browse the vast collection of beautiful stilettos, disappointed when Katara gave her a disapproving shake of the head. "Azula, I have never worn anything with a heel," Katara said. "If I tried one of these stilettos, I would fall and break my neck. Hmm… maybe that is your evil plot to get rid of a Pai Sho rival?"

"That seems like a very unreliable way to get rid of someone. I'd probably use poison," Azula replied. Katara stared at her for a while before bursting into laugher as if Azula had said something funny. "Anyway, you don't know how to walk on heels? What's wrong with you? How can you be so awkward?"

"Awkward? I'm not awkward! I'm from the far north," Katara retorted. "I'd like to see you walking the streets of Cape Kuruk with your stilettos. Heels are completely impractical in the north. It shouldn't be surprising that I have no experience wearing shoes like this."

"Alright," Azula considered this new piece of information. "That makes sense, but it doesn't solve our problem. You can't wear your Mary Jane's with this new dress. It would be a fashion disaster."

"I'm sure that we can find some perfectly fine shoes without a heel that go well with the dress," Katara insisted, walking off and leaving Azula to glance wistfully at the stiletto display.

After a while, Azula reluctantly moved on, starting to browse through the collection of cute kitten heels, when suddenly a pair of shoes attracted her immediate attention. They were baby blue kittens with a very moderate heel, but what had caught Azula's eye was the beautiful sapphires the shoes were embellished with. They had a very similar pattern to Katara's earrings. Azula immediately decided that she was making Katara wear these shoes.

Azula picked up the shoes and checked the price tag which was listed at twelve hundred yuan. Katara had earlier dismissed some of the dresses because they were supposedly too expensive at five hundred yuan. Azula solved the problem by quickly ripping off the price tag while nobody was looking, then bringing the shoes over to Katara.

"Hey, look what I found," Azula said, holding the pair of shoes out for Katara to see.

Katara's eyes widened instantly as she gaped at the lovely pair of kitten heels. "Wow, those are precious!" she gushed. "And the heel isn't even so bad!" Katara then hesitated. "They must be worth a fortune. I assume those gemstones aren't fake."

"Katara, you want these shoes. Just think of how amazingly well they will go with your new dress," Azula spoke firmly, refusing to hear any arguments.

"I don't know… there's a nice pair of pointy flats for only a hundred and fifty yuan," Katara mused stubbornly.

"Sure, you can have those, but I am getting you these kitten heels regardless," Azula insisted. Katara wearing these shoes was happening no matter what.

Katara let out a frustrated, defeated sigh. Azula couldn't quite understand the reaction. She obviously wanted the expensive shoes. Did she feel guilty about accepting them? This was pocket change to Azula. "Alright, fine… you win, I'll take the shoes," Katara eventually agreed much to Azula's delight.

"Great," Azula nodded. Within a minute, the shoes were in a wrapped box tucked under Katara's arm and Azula was instructing the shop assistant to forward the bill to the estate, as per usual.

"I guess we are done?" Katara asked once they were back outside the shoe store, sitting down on a nearby bench.

"Yes, I think you're all set now," Azula nodded. She suddenly felt a little hesitant, not sure what to say next. It was now well in the afternoon and she hadn't eaten a bite since the early morning. There was a splendorous meal waiting on her back at the estate, but the idea of spending more time with Katara also had its appeal. "Do you still want to go over the games today?" she decided to ask.

"I would, but…" Katara began, looking a little apologetic. "Since I agreed to do this fake date with you, I'll have to come up with some excuse to ditch Sokka and Yue tomorrow. We had already agreed to spend time together tomorrow, but perhaps we'll do that this evening instead. That means I'll have to do all the prep tomorrow morning."

"That makes sense," Azula nodded, managing to hide her slight disappointment. "So, about tomorrow…"

"Yes, I was wondering how exactly it's all going to work," Katara nodded.

"How about I come to your hotel room at… let's say four in the afternoon," Azula suggested. "I'll help you with your hair and makeup." Katara raised an eyebrow at that, but Azula ignored the reaction. "Then we can go to the hotel's restaurant together. I think it would be better if we arrived there together, no?"

"I think that's a good idea," Katara agreed.

"And of course, we need to agree about setting boundaries that we are both comfortable with," Azula continued.

"…boundaries?" Katara blinked.

"Well, yes," Azula nodded. "We're supposedly dating, right? That means we should act towards each other with a level of… affection?"

"Oh," Katara blushed slightly. "How do you mean that, exactly?"

"Well, I think we should at least hold hands," Azula said, also feeling her cheeks becoming warm. "As for kissing-"

"I am not kissing you!" Katara exclaimed.

"Well, obviously we are not doing that. I was just going to say that we don't take it as far as kissing," Azula nodded. She was quite annoyed at the vehemence with which Katara had reacted. Not that she wanted to kiss Katara, obviously not, but it still hurt her pride. Azula simply would have felt better about herself if she knew that Katara was a little into her.

"Oh. Okay, that makes more sense," Katara giggled. "This is all so twisted, isn't it? For some reason it's making me all excited."

Azula smiled despite herself. "I'm not surprised," she spoke confidently. "Even a fake date with me is obviously an amazing way to spend your time."

Katara gave her a searching stare and then began to laugh even harder. "Sure, Azula… whatever you say!"

Azula shook her head, but the smile never left her lips either. Katara Enuaraq was a very strange girl. But somehow, she also seemed like a nice friend worth having.

Next chapter: Azula and Katara go on their fake date.

Chapter Text

CW: Internalized homophobia, for which we can obviously thank Ozai. Yay...

Katara still couldn't quite believe that she had actually agreed to go on a fake date with none other than Azula Nakamura. Making excuses to Sokka and Yue had proved easier than Katara had expected. Her brother in particular had no objections to having the entire off-day alone with Yue. They had spent the previous evening together, hanging out in Downtown Caldera City. Sokka had turned their visit to a local bistro into a competition of who could best endure the spicy Fire Nation food, a competition that Katara and Yue wisely allowed him to win. Sokka had then tried to convince them to go clubbing, but it was just a terrible idea even if there were no competitive games to play the following day. Instead, Katara and Yue had decided to spend the evening at a local bowling hall, and Sokka was left with no choice but to join them.

The following morning, having had breakfast at the hotel's cafeteria, Katara returned to her room and spent some time preparing for her game tomorrow. Keeping her thoughts focused proved very hard, however, because she kept thinking about her weird fake date with Azula. When Katara became too distracted to continue her Pai Sho prep, she instead put on her beautiful new shoes and practiced walking around with the kitten heels. It proved easier than she had expected. Even though Katara's main hobby was considered as very nerdy, she was actually very good at various sports and possessed a very good sense of balance. Besides, the heel wasn't too high, only an inch and a half. Azula's stilettos were at least four-inchers, which to Katara just seemed insane.

Azula arrived exactly at four in the afternoon as she had promised, not a minute sooner or later. Her chosen outfit surprised Katara because for once it wasn't dominated by the color red. She was wearing black stilettos, black fishnet stockings, tiny black miniskirt and a leather vest on top of a dark burgundy blouse. Katara couldn't help feeling a little envious of the other girl's fashion sense, but thanks to Azula, she now had an outfit that she could wear and not feel ashamed standing next to her new friend. Friend… is she my friend? I'd like to think so. Despite the stupid and ignorant things that she says like all the time, I never get the sense she actually means to insult. She seems more like a very lonely girl who just doesn't know how to make friends.

Katara and Azula then spent a little more than an hour doing some Pai Sho practice, going over Katara's game with Ruon-Jian and not bothering with Azula's steamrolling of Zirin. It had been so one-sided that there wasn't much to learn from that particular game. As time drew closer to their date, Azula insisted that Katara start getting ready. Katara was then forced to sit down by the mirror while Azula retrieved her makeup kit and began to work. Katara had been dubious about allowing Azula to do her makeup, however, when she faced the results of Azula's work in the mirror, she had to admit that the other girl was a wizard with the makeup kit. Azula clearly had much better tools at her disposal than Katara's basic kit, but still… the work she had done with the shadows alone had a magical effect. Katara's eyes seemed so deep and magnetic, she felt like she could hypnotize herself just by gazing long enough into the mirror.

Azula had clearly intended to also redo Katara's hair, muttering something about the silly hair loops, but Katara had shot her down right there and then. The hair loops were non-negotiable. She could change some aspects about the way she wore her hair, but the hair loops would always be a part of it. They were just Katara's thing. No… that was not true. It wasn't actually a Katara thing. It was the way her mother had always worn her hair. Katara hadn't even particularly liked it when Kya had still been alive. After her mother's death, Katara had adopted many rituals through which to preserve her mother's memory. Most had faded over the years, but the hair loops had stuck. That was why it was a non-negotiable matter and she couldn't explain her reasons to Azula, at least not before she knew the other girl much better.

Five minutes to seven in the evening, the two girls left Katara's hotel room and took the elevator to the fourth floor where the hotel's fancy restaurant was located. Entering the restaurant hall, Katara felt Azula reaching out and grabbing her hand. Her touch felt firm, but not without tension. Despite herself feeling nervous, Katara managed to flash what she hoped was a reassuring smile to the other girl.

Ruon-Jian and Mai were already waiting for them at the reserved table. Upon seeing their approach while holding hands, Mai and her boyfriend exchanged looks of disbelief. Ruon-Jian rose to greet them while Mai remained sitting at the table. "Well, well… this is a surprise," Ruon said by the way of greeting them. "I didn't know you were dating Katara Enuaraq," he said, looking at Azula.

"Makes sense considering the things I know," Mai quipped before Azula could even answer.

"We've only just started going out together, so very few people know about us," Katara explained, seeing that Azula appeared slightly tongue-tied. "Also, you must be Mai," she added, offering the sullen looking girl a handshake. Mai took her hand, responding with a brief squeeze.

"Pleased to meet you, Katara," Mai replied, though her eyes were firmly locked on Azula for some reason. "Well, this might turn out to be a more interesting evening than I had expected," she added, slightly mysteriously.

"No hard feelings about yesterday, Katara?" Ruon-Jian smiled. It seemed as if he couldn't keep his eyes off from both her and Azula, but either Mai hadn't noticed or she simply didn't care.

"Of course not," Katara replied with a smile. "I believe Azula is scheduled to play you tomorrow. She will avenge me."

"I look forward to her trying," Ruon chuckled, glancing at Azula. "Beautiful and talented, we're truly blessed to have you both at this year's tournament."

"Oh, for the love of-" Mai rolled her eyes, looking disgusted at Ruon's flattery.

"So, how did you two get to know each other?" Katara asked, a little awkwardly. The atmosphere around the table was not what she had expected. Somehow, Mai and Ruon felt more like a fake couple than she and Azula did.

"We ran into each other at a party a few weeks before the tournament," Ruon-Jian explained. "We already knew each other from before, but we only started dating now."

"And what about you two lovebirds?" Mai asked, looking at Azula.

Katara also glanced at Azula, but her pretend girlfriend didn't seem eager to reply. Katara couldn't figure out Azula's expression, but it seemed as if she was either upset or worried about something. "Well, it began at this tournament, actually," Katara decided to reply when it became clear that Azula wouldn't answer. "Azula asked me to go over our game together, and it sort of started from there."

"Ah, interesting," Ruon-Jian grinned at Azula. "Chan told me that you asked him as well. So, if only he hadn't acted like a complete idiot, he might now be sitting in Katara's place, with an incredibly hot girlfriend by his side."

"There's literally zero chance of me ever dating someone with Chan's limited mental faculties," Azula snapped angrily. Katara also felt pretty annoyed with Ruon's comment. Even if Azula was just her pretend girlfriend, Ruon clearly didn't know that, so it had been a complete dick thing to say.

"Ouch, that's harsh," Ruon-Jian laughed.

Shortly afterwards, the waiter came over with the menus and poured them some water, while another waiter delivered the appetizers Ruon-Jian and Mai had ordered ahead of time. Katara began browsing the menu while snacking on those huge Fire Nation olives she knew she was going to miss upon her return home. "I wonder what the least spicy item on this menu is," Katara wondered aloud. "My taste buds still haven't recovered from yesterday's meal."

"You may want to ask the waiter for children's menu," Mai quipped.

"Mai?" Azula asked, sounding both tense and angry. "Are you going to be a complete bitch the whole evening?" Katara blinked in surprise. Azula standing up for her was nice, but she had thought that the two girls were old friends, or at least that was what Azula had implied. And yet she sensed very little actual warmth, only plenty of tension between them. It made Katara wonder exactly what had happened between them.

"Maybe not the whole evening," Mai replied, not sounding bothered by Azula's words in the slightest. "You don't think I'm entitled to some bitchiness? You got me kicked out of the best school in the Fire Nation."

"That was your own fault!" Azula exclaimed angrily. "Besides, we are not talking about that. If you want to dredge up all that shit from the past, then Katara and I are leaving right away."

What on earth is going on with these two? Katara was astonished by the spat between Mai and Azula, but it seemed as if she wasn't the only one. Ruon-Jian also looked to be taken aback by surprise.

"Whoa, I'm getting a lot of negative vibes all around this table," Ruon-Jian laughed awkwardly. "How about we just chill and talk about fun stuff? Like my new car? Maybe we can all go for a ride after we're done here?"

"That sounds fun, but I wouldn't want to stay up late tonight," Katara replied. "I am playing your friend Chan tomorrow morning, so I would prefer to be well rested."

"He's probably trying to get us distracted before the tournament resumes tomorrow," Azula said in a tone that didn't quite make it clear whether she meant it or was saying it jokingly. Still, considering that Azula rarely said anything jokingly, she probably was being serious. "And I bet a bottle of wine would also surprisingly show up at some point as if from nowhere."

"She's got you figured all out, Ruon," Mai chuckled at her boyfriend.

"Damn, you are a bunch of mean girls," Ruon laughed. "Except Katara. I can see that she's the most chill chick here."

"Uh, thanks," Katara replied. She was generally slow to anger, but Ruon-Jian was really pushing it. Something about his demeanor was seriously grating on her. Fortunately, after the waiter had come to take their orders, the conversation shifted to a safer topic, the Pai Sho tournament.

"So, you're both doing quite well in your first year with the big boys and girls, am I right?" Ruon-Jian asked. "Especially you, Azula. Four points out of six is pretty good, same as me. You're probably still hoping to medal, eh?"

"I'm going to have five points out of seven tomorrow," Azula replied with a confident grin. "Definitely on course for a podium."

"Love the confidence," Ruon-Jian smiled right back at Azula. "And what about you, Katara? Pleased with your performance so far?"

"It's going a little better than I had expected, really. Three points out of six isn't bad at all," Katara shrugged. "It's not like I came here expecting to win everything. I'm treating this year more like an introduction."

"That's a good attitude to have," Ruon-Jian nodded. "Not that any of us could have hoped for a sniff at victory this year. How about that brother of yours, Azula? Zuko has all wins so far. That's going to be another gold medal around his neck."

"Oh, he wishes," Azula frowned. "I'm playing him in the final round, which is absolutely perfect. I am so going to trip him up."

"Maybe, but even if you are successful, nobody will be close enough to Zuko in the standings to take advantage if he loses," Ruon shrugged.

"We'll see about that," Azula said with fierce determination. This was the first time Katara had heard Azula speaking about her brother Zuko. He had only choice words for Azula when Katara had pestered him the past summer. It seemed that there was no love lost from the other side as well.

Their food was delivered not long after and everyone busied themselves with their meal. Living on the coast, Katara considered herself something of a seafood aficionado. Once she had spotted seafood linguini on the menu, her choice was set. She definitely wasn't regretting her choice, even if she questioned whether the generous amount of chili flakes even had a place in this dish.

Even though Katara had hoped that the tensions between Mai and Azula had settled, it wasn't to be when Mai suddenly spoke up, this time addressing her. "You know, I'm really surprised that Azula would choose to date a girl after how her father reacted to her previous girlfriend," Mai said, almost making Katara drop her cutlery from shock.

"Be quiet, Mai," Azula hissed threateningly. "This isn't your story to tell."

"You don't think she needs to know?" Mai asked, pointing at Katara. "And I can't believe that all this time you still haven't asked me about Ty Lee."

"We are not talking about Ty Lee!" Azula raised her voice to a level where it was starting to attract attention from the other tables. "Do you… know anything about where she is? What she's doing?"

"I do happen to know, Azula," Mai replied. "She writes me often from Ba Sing Se."

"Ba Sing Se?" Azula repeated incredulously. "Why is she in Ba Sing Se? How is she doing? Is she well?" A genuine concern seemed to have crept into Azula's voice, perhaps for the first time since Katara had started to hang out with her.

"She's not doing well, Azula, because her father can't get a decent enough job to support a family of seven daughters," Mai replied. "Ozai Nakamura has blacklisted her father's name from ever again being employed as a financial advisor. They are descending into deep poverty."

Azula looked shocked. "And you're blaming me for it?" she looked at Mai.

"I'm blaming you, and I'm blaming your father," Mai spoke sternly.

"But I had no idea that my father would do something so extreme!" Azula exclaimed. "That's… no, that's not possible! He wouldn't have done something so harsh just because Ty Lee and I… no, Ty Lee's father must have done something really bad. Maybe he gave my father bad financial advice."

"Ah, that's the Azula we know and love, always defending her daddy," Mai chuckled. "So, are you going to ask Ozai to remove Ty Lee's dad from the blacklist now that you know the truth?"

Azula sat there in stubborn silence before blurting out in an accusing voice. "You can blame me all you want, Mai, but it's actually your fault that it all happened the way it did," Azula pointed out. "If you hadn't wandered off and allowed my father to walk in on me and Ty Lee, none of this would have happened."

"Oh, fuck you, Azula," Mai snapped irately. "I was done being your glorified door guard while you and Ty Lee engaged in your sordid little kissing practice. What sort of person even asks that of their friend?"

"You could have said something! I had no idea it was such a burden on you," Azula shot back. "Instead you just wandered off and threw us under the bus!"

"Think what you want, but I'm still blaming you, bitch," Mai retorted. During this entire stunning exchange, Katara had slowly developed an impression that the reason why Mai was so angry about this episode was because she actually did feel guilty about the part she had played. Unfortunately, Azula was too upset and generally lacked the perceptiveness to realize this. She just felt attacked and was busy defending herself, no doubt also feeling guilty.

And what Katara had managed to piece together from these snippets of information was very troubling. Ozai Nakamura was controlling to the extreme. That he would go so far to punish the family of a girl who had dated his daughter was crazy and excessive. And it made Katara worried of what might happen if the news of their fake date leaked to Azula's father. Katara's father worked for Nakamura Industries. Ozai could get him fired any moment he pleased. The one saving grace was that Ozai Nakamura surely did not know that there was an oil rig shift foreman named Hakoda Enuaraq somewhere in his employ.

Also, by this point, a waiter had come up to their table, the man looking deeply uncomfortable as he addressed the arguing girls. "Young ladies, if I could please ask you to keep your voices down a little-"

"Don't worry, I'm done here," Azula stated, rising from her seat and turning to walk away. She had already made several steps before turning back to look at the still stunned Katara. "Are you coming or not?" Azula asked her.

"Sorry," Katara muttered, looking at Mai and Ruon across the table. Mai still looked seriously pissed. Ruon-Jian, however, was grinning like a cat that had gotten into cream. Katara had no idea what his problem was. Either he was getting off on watching two girls tearing into each other or maybe he felt that this was playing into his hands as far as tomorrow's game was concerned.

Katara didn't waste any more time, however, hurrying after Azula who was busy storming off in a huff. Katara felt fairly confident when it came to walking with her heels on flat surfaces. As she quickly caught up with Azula outside of the restaurant, Katara had actually forgotten that she was wearing heels. But when Katara ran after Azula up the short flight of stairs, disaster happened and she fell. At least she was out of sight of anyone inside the restaurant, but it didn't exactly soothe the stab of pain shooting through her ankle and she let out a cry of pain.

Azula was at her side in a heartbeat, helping Katara back up to her feet. "I told you I didn't want to wear heels!" Katara exclaimed, tears pooling in her eyes as she steadied herself against Azula.

"Why are you mad at me? I didn't make you fall, Katara," Azula replied.

"Forget it," Katara managed as she slowly hobbled towards the elevator, still being supported by Azula. "I'm sorry that our fake date turned into such a disaster."

"That was probably always going to happen," Azula said. "You did really well though. I would say that you were the perfect fake girlfriend." Katara didn't know how to feel about that sort of compliment. "And I'm sorry you got hurt."

"It's nothing, don't worry," Katara summoned a weak smile as they made it all the way to the elevator. "I just need to get back to my room and scrape some ice from the back of the fridge. A cold compress will fix it."

Azula looked indecisive as they stood by the elevator. Katara hadn't yet pushed the button to summon the elevator as she waited on Azula to say something. "Do you need help with it?" Azula eventually asked.

"No, but I was hoping you could come to my room anyway," Katara replied. "I feel like we should talk."

"I really don't feel like talking right now, Katara," Azula sighed. "Especially if you want to talk about the stuff that Mai shouted at me for."

"I think you need to talk to someone about it," Katara insisted. "It might as well be me. People tell me I'm good at listening without being judgmental."

"Yes, you are pretty good at not screaming at me most of the time," Azula agreed readily. "Fine, let's go to your room. But we're fixing your leg first before any annoying conversations."

"It's a deal," Katara nodded, finally hitting the button to summon the elevator.

Ten minutes later, Katara was back in her room, lying on the bed with a cold towel with chipped ice wrapped around her ankle. Azula was sitting in a nearby chair, looking a little tense. Katara decided to ease into their conversation by starting with a less sensitive topic. "I'll have the clothes washed and cleaned before I send them back to you," she began.

"What are you talking about?" Azula gave her a curious stare. Katara waited for her to continue. "Didn't I make it clear that they were yours to keep as my gratitude for helping me out with this fake date?"

"I feel like I can't accept such generosity," Katara frowned. Azula had done her best to hide the cost of the purchases, but Katara had managed to spy both of the bills. The total amount was close to two thousand yuan, which was just insane to her. It was more than her father's monthly salary, working crazy hours in outrageous conditions on the oil rig.

"Well, then you're a fool," Azula shrugged. "You should know that I would never wear something that has already been worn by someone else. So giving these clothes back to me would be as good as throwing them away. Do you still want to do it?"

"Very well, in that case I'll keep them," Katara conceded. She was relieved that because of what Azula had said she was now feeling less guilty about keeping all the expensive stuff. "So… can we talk about this girl you dated in the past, this Ty Lee?" Katara tried carefully.

Azula's mouth instantly set into a defensive scowl. "I wasn't really dating her. We were just two kids, fooling around," she replied hastily.

"It would have been okay if you had been dating her," Katara said, trying to sound supportive. "I'm totally fine with it."

"Well, aren't you progressive?" Azula glared at her.

"Why does this make you so upset?" Katara wondered. "I'm not going to look down upon you just because you're into girls. I wouldn't have expected that of you, but I think it's very sweet."

"For the hundredth time, I am not into girls!" Azula exclaimed angrily. "It was just a phase! We were experimenting, okay?"

"Okay, but… that doesn't really follow, Azula. I mean, you asked me to be your fake date. If you were straight, you probably wouldn't have even thought to do that," Katara pointed out.

"I asked you because I knew you were such a stupid bleeding heart that you might actually agree! You being a girl had nothing to do with that!" Azula was firmly intent on remaining in denial.

"I don't believe you, Azula," Katara smiled, shaking her head. "By the way, nobody knows this about me, but since I know your secret, I'll share mine. I like girls, too. There's nothing wrong with it, Azula."

"Oh yes? Well, you might be a filthy lesbian, but I'm not!" Azula huffed angrily, getting up from the chair. "I'm nothing like you, Katara!"

Katara felt as if she had become fairly good at detecting when Azula was lying and when she was being genuine. On this occasion, Azula's denial felt like the most blatant lie in the history of all lies. Katara just wasn't sure why Azula was so adamant in her denial. Was it because she knew that her father would never accept this part of her, and consequentially, would punish her severely if she continued to indulge in her deviancy? Was it perhaps her way to cope by trying to lie to herself about who and what she was?

"You're right, we have very little in common, Azula, except maybe for this one thing," Katara smiled softly, but it only seemed to stoke Azula's anger. "I wish you didn't feel the need to lie to yourself about it."

"You are out of your pathetic peasant mind! I am not lying to myself about anything!" Azula shouted. "I knew it was a stupid idea to talk about this, because there's nothing to talk about. I made a mistake in the past and Ty Lee was punished for it, that's all there is to it. Feel free to start your own club for oppressed lesbians, but don't expect me to be a part of it, because like I said, I'm not a degenerate!"

"I'm sorry you feel that way," Katara sighed. She couldn't even make herself feel angry at Azula for her insults. They were so obviously poor and insincere attempts of deflection. It just made Katara feel sad that Azula couldn't be honest with herself. "But it seems like you aren't ready to have an earnest discussion about this. Perhaps you'll be more ready for it later, but right now… Azula, maybe you should leave."

"Gladly," Azula snapped, stomping out of Katara's hotel room and slamming the doors behind her back. The Water Tribe girl continued to rest on the bed, the cold towel wrapped around her sore ankle. Katara sighed, looking up at the ceiling. Perhaps it was no wonder that Azula was such a bitter and lonely girl. When it came to making friends, she certainly made it extremely hard to be friends with her.

Next chapter: The final stages of the tournament. Will Zuko be able to clinch his victory, or will Azula manage to trip him up at the last hurdle?

Chapter Text

The next three rounds of competition following Katara's disastrous fake date with Azula proved surprisingly successful for Katara. She was definitely not at her best because of all the turmoil involving Azula, but at this late stage of the tournament, everyone's mental and physical endurance was starting to become even more important than their actual skill. They were all still just kids, most of them had by now spent almost two full weeks away from home, and they were going through all sorts of different issues. Katara may have been emotionally all over the place, but her opponents were only human as well. Chan had clearly been partying too much on the tournament's previous off-day and Katara had dispatched him easily in Round 7, before smashing Hahn Adjuk in the next round in what was probably her best game of the tournament.

With five points to her name, Katara had climbed up within an arm's reach of the podium, starting to hope that perhaps a medal was possible, but then Zuko Nakamura had sent her crashing back down to earth in Round 9 with an almost embarrassingly easy victory. Katara refused to remain upset about it, however. She was already exceeding her own pre-tournament expectations. And her final two opponents were Joo Dee and Yue, so Katara was confident of getting a decent haul of points from these matches.

Azula had been dodging her ever since their argument in the wake of the fake date. Katara had confronted her once to ask if she still wanted to study their games together, but Azula had firmly rejected the offer. Katara couldn't help but feel a little hurt by the rejection, even if it meant that she now got to spend more time with Yue, which was her preference anyway. She felt sorrier on the behalf of Azula herself. Katara had sensed the loneliness of the other girl. She thought that Azula could have benefitted from a friend like her. But if Azula was going to deny Katara's company to herself then there was little that Katara could do about it.

Katara wondered if perhaps telling Azula that she liked girls had been a mistake. Not because she expected that Azula would betray her secret. She wouldn't do that, because Katara could just respond by claiming the same about her. Katara wondered if perhaps Azula was now wary of her because she knew Katara's preferences. Maybe Azula thought that Katara was trying to seduce her? That was such a ridiculous thought. Well… sure, Azula was objectively a very pretty girl. But being romantically drawn to someone like Azula Nakamura? No, no, no, Katara would rather stick her arm in a hornet's nest than getting herself burned by someone like Azula. Besides, she already had her tragic and doomed crush in Yue. Maybe if Azula knew that she was already in love with someone else… but no, Katara's feelings for Yue were something extremely precious and private to her. She wouldn't share that secret with anyone, ever.

Indeed, with all these feelings bubbling under the surface, it was a surprise that Katara was doing as well as she did at the Pai Sho board. Come the next day-off of the tournament before the final two rounds, Katara and Yue had decided on a dedicated spa day, an entire day just for themselves, spent on nothing else but rest and relaxation. Sokka had kicked up a fuss about getting shut out of the activities for the whole day, but both Katara and Yue had gently reminded him that he had already enjoyed some extra time with Yue because Katara had been unexpectedly hanging out with Azula.

Just before heading out on their spa adventure with Yue, however, Katara had another matter to take care of. She had been following the news of the U15 World Junior Championships, running concurrently on Kyoshi Island. With Aang and Toph taking part in that tournament, Katara was keenly interested to remain in touch with their progress. However, lately the papers had stopped reporting any news from the Kyoshi Islands, leaving Katara to wonder what was going on there. The most likely explanation was that the Fire Nation candidates were doing so poorly that the local news rags had lost interest in covering the event. Still, Katara wanted to make sure and so she had placed a long distance phone call to the Kyoshi Island hotel where the contestants were staying. It didn't take long for the phone in her hotel room to ring, and she picked up the handset, hoping that the connection had gone through.

"Yeah?" despite the bad connection, Katara recognized Toph's acerbic voice immediately.

"Hi, Toph!" Katara exclaimed happily. "Recognize me?"

"Wait… Sugar Queen?" Toph sounded both surprised and elated at once. "Aang! It's Katara!" she shouted at the Air Nation boy.

"Hi, Katara! How are you?" she could hear Aang's voice at the other end of the line, the two younger kids fighting for the handset. Toph apparently won that fight, evidenced by Aang's gasp and grunt. As always, Toph wasn't messing about.

"I'm alright, you guys," Katara chuckled. Even over the phone, the antics of the two younger kids made her smile. "Did I interrupt your preparations?"

"Eh, don't worry about it," Toph replied. "It's not like Aang needs to do prep, he's already sealed the tournament win. He's just here to help me secure the silver."

"Oh, I'm so happy you're doing so well! And Aang, big congrats on the victory! I could not imagine anyone worthier to inherit my old title!" Katara exclaimed happily.

"Thanks, Katara!" Aang momentarily wrestled the handset away from Toph. "You're doing pretty well yourself! We're following your games in the papers! Great job with that Hahn guy!"

"Haha, yes, that was a wild game, right?" Katara laughed. "Yeah, I'm not winning the tournament this year, but it's going pretty well nonetheless. The next two years I'm going to mount a more serious challenge, you'll see."

"I believe in you, Katara!" Aang cheered.

"Oh, stop sucking up to her, dork," Toph growled. Katara could hear Aang's yelp, suggesting that Toph had clocked him yet again. "Anyway, Katara, I actually liked your game with Azula Nakamura better even if you lost it in the end. All that back and forth… wow, my head was spinning all the way to the end."

"I know what you mean, Toph! Oh, and speaking of Azula Nakamura…" Katara grinned, already anticipating the shock of her friends. "I've kinda made a friend in her…"

"No way!" Aang gasped.

"Are you shitting us, Sugar Queen?" Toph sounded incredulous. "What, you're going to tell us that she's not as horrible as she appears?"

"She really isn't, Toph," Katara replied. "I mean… I wouldn't say that she's nice, but there definitely is a reason why she is the way she is. I don't know, I guess I'm more patient than most people, but when I learned to ignore some of the stupid things she says, I actually got on very well with her."

"So, what have you been up to with her?" Toph asked.

"Mostly just doing post-match analysis together," Katara replied. She wasn't going to mention that fake date to anyone if she could help it. "It was surprisingly helpful. Her mind really is very sharp, but I think I was able to help her as well."

"Oh great, two prodigies making each other even better, Aang and I have no chance once we graduate to U18's," Toph groaned. "Stop hanging out with Azula, please…"

Sadly, I've already stopped hanging out with her, Katara thought, but elected not to say. "Hey, you and Aang are also pushing each other to become frighteningly good," Katara replied. "I'm so glad that you two are doing so well, but honestly, I expected nothing less from you."

"Yeah, well, the competition hasn't exactly been stellar," Toph snorted.

"Well, I'm still incredibly proud," Katara said. "I know how much winning the tournament means for Aang and for the entire Air Nation."

"Thanks, Katara!" Aang replied cheerfully. "Gyatso called to congratulate me yesterday. Seems they have some big celebrations planned for my return home!"

"Yeah, I heard that they are going to hang garlands from Appa's horns," Toph laughed. Appa was Aang's beloved pet yak. Aang also had another pet he adored and would probably take to the tournaments, if not for the damage Momo the macaque would cause to the hotel rooms.

"I'm sure it's going to be great," Katara chuckled, then becoming aware of the knocking on her door and Yue's voice calling her name outside. "Oh, I'm sorry, but Yue is here to pick me up. We're off to have a spa day."

"Eww, spa," Toph's reaction was predictable.

"Have fun, Katara!" Aang exclaimed cheerfully.

"Thanks, I will! Talk to you later!" Katara said, putting down the handset. Talking with the two younger kids always put her in a better mood. A happy smile was on her face as she left the room to join Yue outside. Considering the company she would have for the day, the smile was set to remain firmly on her lips.

Azula was not having a great time as of late. Everything had started to fall apart following that fake date she had gone on with Katara. Still, what happened afterwards wasn't really Katara's fault, Azula had to grudgingly admit that. If only Mai hadn't been such a massive bitch about that past disaster, then she wouldn't have ended up enduring that seriously awful conversation with Katara and the two of them could have remained friends.

And perhaps they could still remain friends. Azula didn't feel great about dodging Katara the whole time. She didn't even want to do that. Spending time with the Water Tribe girl was actually kind of fun and useful. However, that post fake date conversation had forced her to erect some serious barriers. It was interesting (but inconsequential!) that Katara had admitted being into girls. Not that she was into Azula. Azula didn't need that. Besides, Katara had been pretty vehement earlier about not wanting to kiss Azula. (Not that Azula wanted to be kissed by Katara. It was just the Principle of the Thing.) And if there was a girl Azula wanted to be kissed by it was Zirin, which was bad enough, because Zirin had proved that she couldn't be trusted.

So why wasn't Azula spending time with Katara if she was confident that they both just wanted to be friends who studied their Pai Sho games together? Well… following their last conversation, Azula had developed this feeling that Katara was starting to analyze Azula herself more than she was analyzing their games. And Azula was not comfortable with this level of scrutiny. Katara was trying to force her to admit things that Azula hadn't even admitted to herself yet. It felt like Katara was determined to help Azula understand her own Feelings, and Azula just didn't want to deal with all that crap. She wanted to shove these Feelings under the carpet with the rest of the emotional fallout she had buried in the wake of her parent's divorce. That was where they belonged. They definitely didn't need to be dragged out in the limelight during an important tournament where they immediately became a massive distraction. That's why she was dodging Katara Enuaraq. That girl was creating a distraction which was seriously hampering Azula's play.

Of course, Katara wasn't at fault that the whole Ty Lee incident had come to light, that was squarely on Mai. Azula really hated to revisit the past. Mai had no idea what her father had done to Azula after he had thrown Mai and Ty Lee out of the estate. And of course, finding out that Ty Lee and her family were living in poverty, like rats in Ba Sing Se… it all served to make Azula feel absolutely awful.

It wasn't often that she dared to allow herself experience anger and resentment towards her father. She had told herself countless times that to feel that way was wrong and improper. And yet, she couldn't help but feel anger at the way Ozai had treated Ty Lee's family. It just didn't feel right. It made her question other things about her father's behavior. He had punished her severely for kissing a girl, which meant that she could never come out as a lesbian and had to suppress that part of herself. However, if her father didn't want her to become involved with other girls, why didn't he allow her to hang out with boys? He seemed to be deeply obsessed about protecting her from the company of other men, and to Azula, that just seemed contradictory to what he wanted to achieve with her.

With all this weighing on Azula's mind, it wasn't a surprise that the tournament rounds following that fake date and confrontation with Mai hadn't gone well. To add insult to injury, the following day she had lost to that grinning asshole Ruon-Jian. In the next round she had lost to one of the stronger players, the Earth Nation boy Haru Tamang. Azula hadn't been terribly upset about that because Haru was the only one left still challenging her brother Zuko. Following those two losses, Azula had then rebounded with victories over Theo Guyuk and Ghashiun al-Alawi, but the damage had already been done and the podium was now out of reach. However, something else had happened in the penultimate round, something that could still salvage this tournament for Azula. After scoring nine wins in nine rounds, Zuko had dropped a game to Haru. And now, ahead of the final round, Zuko had nine points, while Haru was trailing on eight. Azula was playing Zuko in the final round. If she defeated Zuko while Haru won his game, they would be on equal points, but Haru would win the tournament because he had won his game against Zuko. Everything had once again come down to the final and decisive round.

Azula arrived for the final round brimming with confidence and excitement, ready to get down to the business. It was finally time to employ some good old psychological warfare to further tip the scales in her favor. Azula knew that Zuko had faced plenty of backlash from the spectators during the tournament. He was a Fire Nation exile, still officially representing the Fire Nation, when most of the local public understandably viewed him as a traitor. The Fire Nation press had done a very convincing job presenting Ursa, Zuko and Iroh as villains following the nasty divorce proceedings. Azula decided to capitalize even further on the public's resentment towards Zuko. As she entered the hall, Azula began to wave at the spectators, encouraging them to loudly cheer and support her, all to further annoy Zuko.

Arriving at the table, Azula gave her brother a cheerful smile and reached out to offer him an insincere handshake. Zuko glared at her and refused to accept it. The crowd took notice and immediately began to boo at Zuko's unsportsmanlike conduct. After Azula then managed to get in a few little digs, commenting about how Zuko was sure to soon run back to mommy for comfort and other petty insults, she could see that Zuko was starting to become seriously angry with her. And anger was an emotion that had no place at the Pai Sho board, being extremely detrimental to one's clarity of mind. With Zuko's confidence already having taking a knock after his loss to Haru, Azula began to feel like she had this in the bag.

Even with Zuko not in a good frame of mind, it was a tough slog of a battle. Zuko was damnably good for being the inferior sibling. Azula could not risk going on an all out attack against her brother, she feared the traps he would have surely set up for her. Instead, she settled on slowly chipping away at his position, accompanying her efforts with the occasional dig, commenting how Haru was about to win his game and how Zuko was about to lose it all at the final hurdle. At one point, Zuko became so mad that he actually called a tournament official over to the table and issued a formal complaint about her behavior. Azula was then given a verbal warning for her conduct, but it was a move that backfired on Zuko, because the crowd had been watching and began to boo him even fiercer.

Eventually, with the number of moves past forty, all the stress began to tell for Zuko and his position finally started to disintegrate. In less than ten moves, Azula had gained a decisive advantage. Fuming with anger, Zuko refused to surrender, ending up suffering the indignity of Azula forming a harmony ring on the fifty-first move. Following her victory, Azula rose from her seat and offered her brother a hand, accompanied with the brightest of smiles. "Well, at least now you know why our father considered you a complete failure, Zuzu," she said quietly, aware that the roaring applause in the hall made it impossible for anyone but Zuko to hear what she was saying.

Azula knew that she was being a complete and utter bitch. But this was what her father had demanded of her, to utterly destroy and humiliate her brother. She had done as Ozai had requested, and it felt glorious. And she had wanted to hurt Zuko. She had wanted to inflict pain on her brother, if only a fraction of the pain that the divorce proceedings had caused her. If this made Azula an abhorrent and disgusting human being in the eyes of the others, she didn't care. Her father would be pleased and it was all that mattered. She would escape a beating and perhaps would even receive some praise and reward.

When Azula looked in the burning eyes of her irate brother, for a moment she seriously thought that he would try to punch her in the face. She actually felt proud of how much she had managed to get under his skin. She even wanted him to take that swing. It would be an immediate disqualification and the last place for Zuko. But no, Zuko managed to exert some control on his emotions at the last moment. Instead, he grabbed the edge of the table and flipped it over. The Pai Sho board went flying, striking the side of the table where Katara was facing Yue Taqqiq, startling and shocking the two girls. The tournament officials immediately ran up to them and surrounded Zuko, escorting him away from the scene to the booing of the crowd.

Azula stoically ignored Zuko's passionate arguing with the officials and instead focused her attention on the still ongoing games in the hall. Haru Tamang had already won his game and was now accepting congratulations on becoming Junior World Champion in a major upset. Azula could not stop a beaming smile from spreading across her lips as she truly began to comprehend the enormity of what she had just achieved. This was Zuko's last year at the U18 level. He would be fully eighteen next year and would have to move onto the next age bracket and Azula had prevented him from going out with a bang. This was the sweetest victory she had scored in her career to date.

Azula stopped at the table where Joo Dee was trying to hold out against Teo, a bitter struggle between the two weakest players, desperate not to place last in the standings. Sensing that Joo Dee was losing, Azula decided to stick around and take certain perverse enjoyment from the public humiliation of Long Feng's annoying daughter. As she was observing the slow dismantling of Joo Dee's defensive line, Azula sensed someone coming up to stand next to her. Azula didn't even need to turn her head to know who it was. She recognized Katara's floral perfume by now. It was cheap, but actually quite pleasant.

"So, you created quite the stir," Katara remarked quietly. "Congratulations?"

"Definitely," Azula nodded. She felt really good about herself right now. Good enough to humor Katara and endure her presence.

"So, where does that place you?" Katara craned her neck, trying to make sense of the large board displaying the tournament standings, the officials constantly updating it as the games drew to a close one by one. "Ouch, just short of the podium?"

"Yes, I think I'm going to take fourth because I lost that stupid game to Ruon," Azula grumbled, also taking a glance at the standings, quickly realizing something. "Wait… you also lost to Yue Taqqiq? How did that happen? Now I'll be placed fifth."

"Yue is really good, Azula. Don't underestimate her," Katara smiled softly. "She'll be going home with a bronze medal around her neck, and I couldn't be happier for her."

"Yes… you're that sort of person to feel disgustingly happy about someone else's success," Azula rolled her eyes.

"Azula, Yue is my best friend," Katara said simply. "But she's not my only friend. I really hoped that I could count you being my friend, too."

Azula flinched at the other girl's words. She really did want to be Katara's friend. But she was also afraid of being Katara's friend and what that might mean. "This whole being friends thing… I'm not very good at it, Katara," Azula said quietly.

"I think you're better than you give yourself credit for, Azula," Katara smiled. "Let us try to be friends? Please?"

"I… I'll think about it," Azula managed to offer a vague promise. "It's not like we're going to meet again until next year, should you even qualify. It's kind of pointless being friends who can't see each other all year."

"I don't think so," Katara shook her head with determination. "It still matters to me. Besides, there are ways to stay in touch. I have friends in all the corners of the world."

"I'm sure you do," Azula rolled her eyes. Good grief, this girl is seriously persistent. I don't think I'll be able to get rid of her unless I agree to be her friend.

"Listen, Azula," Katara came to stand a little closer to her, speaking in a hushed voice. "I'm sorry if I said some things that made it weird for you. I really didn't mean to. We don't have to speak about those things again, if you don't want to."

Damn it, Katara wasn't only persistent, she was also perceptive. Still, Azula was uncertain. Katara Enuaraq was definitely not the sort of friend that Ozai would approve of. And just because Katara was from the Water Tribe, it didn't mean that Ozai couldn't find some way to fuck with Katara and her family. He had already gone to sick, unreasonable lengths to ruin Ty Lee and her family. Azula didn't want Katara to suffer the same fate. But having a friend was also very tempting.

"Alright, fine. If you want to think of me as a friend, I won't try to dissuade you," Azula eventually admitted with a hint of a smile. Katara's face immediately brightened in a way that made Azula feel warmer. Azula had heard of people who could literally light up an entire room with their smile, but she had thought it was merely a figure of speech. That was until she had met Katara.

Meanwhile, Teo had finally defeated the sour-faced Joo Dee, and the final game of the tournament had come to an end. The officials were already busy assembling the podium and the medalists had been whisked away to prepare them for the victory celebration. "I can't believe that another year of competition is already over. Time always flies so quickly during these tournaments," Katara let out a wistful sigh. Azula could sympathize with that sentiment. She lived for this kind of challenge and competition.

"Next year Zuko and Haru won't be playing with us anymore," Azula nodded. "That means we'll be among the main favorites to win. That might make you want to reconsider the whole being friends with me thing."

"It doesn't have to become nasty," Katara shrugged. "Just look at Yue and me. I'm so thrilled for her success. Even if we're rivals, we're also best friends. I can't wait to see her on the podium, with a medal around her neck." Katara smiled broadly at the thought.

"You can be disgustingly sweet, you know that?" Azula grumbled.

"That's what Toph always tells me, too," Katara laughed. "I think you and Toph could be great friends if only I could persuade you to make an effort."

"I'm pretty sure she hates me," Azula shrugged. "I mean, she told me so herself. Anyway, I don't care about Toph Beifong. Right now all I care about is seeing the face of my brother when he gets handed his silver medal. I think he might actually die from humiliation."

"Azula?" Katara asked, sounding befuddled. "Didn't it feel awful for you last year, placing second after me? How can you wish the same on anyone else, especially your own brother?"

Azula shuddered at the unpleasant reminder of the previous year. She hated how Katara was so obviously right and how hypocritical it made her feel. "You don't understand the relationship between me and my brother, Katara," Azula instead replied stiffly. "Don't pretend that you do."

"No, I really don't," Katara shook her head in agreement. "I'm probably projecting my relationship with Sokka. We butt heads, sure, but I love him because I know that at the end of the day, he'll always have my back. To not have that sort of relationship with your brother… I don't know, it just saddens me. And I want to understand, even if I know that you don't want to talk about it."

"That's right, I don't want to talk about it," Azula said. They fell silent for a while, waiting for the podium to be assembled. Once it was done, the victory ceremony began. After a lot of boring pleasantries were finally out of the way, the medalists were called up to the podium one by one, starting by Yue, then Zuko, and finally Haru. Katara was cheering and clapping like a complete fool when Yue received her medal, although Azula was a little touched by the genuine affection that Katara seemed to have for her friend. As for Azula, her reward was particularly sweet, as the hateful look on Zuko's face was everything she had dreamed of. Zuko was glaring pure murder at her during the entire ceremony, and Azula could not be happier.

As the applause for Haru Tamang began to subside, the medalists were eventually escorted away to face the press. Azula remained milling about uncertainly, unsure of how to end things with Katara. When Azula was hit with the reality of the fact that she wouldn't see the Water Tribe girl for an entire year, she suddenly felt pretty damn awful.

Fortunately, Katara broke the silence first. "Will you come to the after-party this year?" Katara asked. "I really hope you will."

"Of course not," Azula reacted on pure instinct. She hated parties, at least the kind of parties she imagined the tournament after-party to be like, just loud and shallow, full with obnoxious and probably drunk kids.

"Why not?" Katara continued. She looked disappointed. Azula realized that she did not enjoy seeing disappointment on Katara's face. "Is it because of your father?"

"No, my father is still traveling and won't be home for two more days," Azula replied. "I just don't like parties. Not really my style."

"Well, tournament after-parties are usually a lot of fun," Katara insisted. "So I'm definitely going. And remember, Ruon-Jian will be taking Mai. If they see me alone, they'll know that our date was totally staged."

"I don't c-" Azula began, then cutting herself off sharply. She did care. Despite things being bad with Mai, she still didn't want Mai to think of her as a pathetic fraud. For some reason, she still cared about Mai's opinion. "No, you make a good point, Katara. Fine, I'll be there. We don't have to do the fake date thing, though, unless you want to."

"Let's just go as friends, Azula, and leave Mai to assume whatever she wants," Katara smiled. "I was alright with pretending for the sake of your old friend, but I'm not going to pretend in front of Sokka and Yue. They would freak out if they thought we were dating for real."

Azula chuckled warily. "Alright, Katara," she nodded. "Friends it is."

Next chapter: The wild tournament after-party! Also, Azula faces Ozai's reaction to the tournament's outcome.

Chapter Text

CW for a terrible Water Tribe pun.

Katara felt knots of nervous tension forming at the pit of her stomach in the anticipation of the tournament's after-party. She had once again decided to wear the expensive mini dress Azula had bought her, but considering that there might be dancing involved, she had decided to set the kitten heels aside and instead opted for her comfortable Mary Jane's. As much as she would have loved to wear her new shoes, her ankle was still a little sore following her fall, and Katara didn't want to risk aggravating the injury by losing her balance on the dance floor.

With her makeup and hair done, Katara left her hotel room to head down to the lobby where she had agreed to meet with Sokka and Yue. The after-party was being held in a local nightclub almost directly across the street from the hotel. Azula had promised to meet her there, and Katara seriously hoped that the Fire Nation girl would keep her promise. Katara earnestly believed that getting out and having some fun would do Azula a world of good. Besides, there were a lot of boys in attendance that Katara really didn't want to dance with, and if Azula were to attend the party, Katara could at least pretend to be taken.

"What the… where did you get that?" Sokka blinked, wide-eyed as he stared at his sister upon her emergence from the elevator.

"What Sokka means to say is… that's an amazing dress, Katara," Yue giggled, standing with Katara's brother and holding his hand. She was wearing a very short black collar dress that left her legs on prominent and stunning display, taking Katara's breath away. "That must have cost a fortune!" Yue added.

"Really?" Sokka wondered. As a boy, he had absolutely no clue about the cost of designer clothes. "Katara, where did you get a fortune to afford this?"

Katara had really hoped to avoid this line of questioning, but with Yue's perceptiveness, there was no way she could get away without offering an explanation. "Uh, Azula bought it for me," she replied, trying not to blush.

"Azula Nakamura is paying for your clothes?" Sokka appeared stunned. Yue was also giving her a slightly odd look. "Now why would she do that?"

"I think it was her way of thanking me for hanging out with her and doing prep together," Katara shrugged. "Remember, she's loaded. This wasn't a big deal for her," she added, trying to brush off the importance of the gesture. Maybe it wasn't a big deal to Azula, but it was a big deal for Katara.

"Interesting…" Sokka shook his head. He actually looked impressed with her. "First, you actually managed to befriend that which could not be befriended. Then you actually got her to buy expensive gifts for you. My little sister has frightening powers of persuasion!"

"I'm actually not surprised at all," Yue chuckled. She reached out to take Katara's hand, settling in between the Enuaraq siblings. "Are we ready to go?" Yue asked, receiving a couple of nods and then they walked out of the hotel to cross the street and approach the nightclub, the pink neon sign spelling the name 'The Dirty Cabbage'.

"Is Azula Nakamura going to show this year?" Sokka asked curiously as they were about to enter the club.

"She promised that she would, but you can never know with Azula," Katara shrugged, trying to appear indifferent as they entered the club to immediately get blasted with loud music. A few couples were already dancing to 'I Got You Babe', but most of the public were congregating around the tables, busy chatting among themselves.

As was usual for these after-parties, they were relatively small and private affairs, meant only for the participants and their friends and family. Unlike the previous year, this time the boys among the contestants outnumbered the girls, and quite a few of them appeared rather excited by the arrival of Katara and Yue. Katara knew that Yue thrived on attention, but on Katara's part, she didn't particularly care about the hungry stares of some of the boys. She searched the hall, desperately looking for Azula, failing to spot the Fire Nation girl. Katara really hoped that Azula would arrive soon because she definitely was not looking forward to fighting off the amorous boys desperate to dance with her.

Katara and Yue eventually sat down at one of the tables, while Sokka briefly left them to pick up some drinks from the bar. Katara seriously hoped that Sokka had no stupid plans to try and get them drunk tonight. Glancing around the hall and taking in the scenery, Katara became convinced that this seemed like an evening when it would be wise to remain sober.

She was quite surprised to see Zuko Nakamura in attendance. Katara hadn't expected him to show after that dramatic last round collapse. Perhaps Zuko thought that Azula wouldn't show up as usual? Katara hoped that if Azula were to make an appearance, the two siblings wouldn't come to blows.

At one of the tables, Katara spotted Ruon-Jian and Mai, accompanied by Chan and Hahn. The two boys without dates were the ones who were rather obnoxiously ogling both her and Yue. If they didn't cut it out, Katara definitely saw the potential of fisticuffs between those two and Sokka. At some point, Katara's eyes met with Mai's, and the sullen black-haired girl gave her a knowing wink. Katara had no idea what it was supposed to mean, but the gesture did not feel respectful. On the dance floor, Haru seemed to be having a lot of fun dancing with the older Fire Nation girl, Zirin, while Joo Dee had roped Ghashiun into dancing with her.

"How about a dance?" Sokka turned to Yue after they had been sipping their fizzy drinks for a while, lost in casual conversation.

"I'd love to, but I don't think we should leave Kat all by herself with some of those guys around," Yue shook her head, glancing back at the table of Ruon and Chan. Katara felt intensely grateful towards her best friend for her thoughtfulness.

"Good point," Sokka nodded, albeit slightly reluctantly. "Although, Katara could just join us on the dance floor. The three of us can dance together."

"Hmm, maybe… but I bet Chan or Hahn would just wander up to us and try to join in," Katara frowned, then looking on with worry as Chan slowly made his way over to their table. He was walking a little unsteady, as if he had already downed a few shots of something stronger than what the bartender was serving to this gathering of minors. Katara was definitely going to shut down any invitations for a dance if they came from Chan. She would have simply preferred to dissuade him from even asking. The Takahashi family was old money, she had been told, not someone you wanted to offend.

"Hey, babes," Chan grinned like an idiot, placing his arms on the backrests of Yue and Katara's chairs, leaning in between them, much too close for the liking of them both. "I'm guessing you're with that guy, right?" Chan looked at Yue, then nodding towards Sokka. He then turned to Katara. "That means you're flying solo, little Northern birdie. Well, I can keep you company… how about we start with a dance or two?"

"She's not flying solo, you moronic half-wit," came a sharp woman's voice directly from behind Chan. Everyone turned around to regard Azula, shocked by her presence. She was looking absolutely gorgeous in her black go-go boots, fishnet stockings, black PVC mini skirt and Paisley print pattern blouse with an exaggerated collar and long necktie. "Get lost Chan," Azula snapped. "Katara is way out of your league."

"I don't think that's the point…" Chan turned towards Azula with a knowing grin. "Seems like the rumors are true and she's playing in a different league entirely. As are you, Azula. It's nothing that Chan's company can't cure, though."

"Chan, I'm going to give you one last warning," Azula smiled sweetly, but only an idiot could not see the clear threat her expression conveyed. "Leave us alone, or the next thing you will experience will be my knee crushing your balls."

"Acting all proud and unattainable, huh?" Chan pulled away, then pointing at both her and Katara before turning to crawl back towards his table. "Mark my words, I'll have my way with the two of you one of these days."

"What a fucking creep," Yue scowled as Azula came to sit down at their table.

"Ignore him, Chan has always been all talk," Azula stated confidently. "Sokka?" she then glanced at Katara's brother with her best imperious expression. "Fetch me a drink, please. I have heard that they do a really good nonalcoholic raspberry mojito here." Sokka seemed frozen by the commanding request, turning towards Katara as if to ask whether he was supposed to even listen to Azula. Katara gave her brother a brief nod, at which he left the table to walk up to the bar. Katara felt so grateful for Azula's timely appearance that she was definitely fine with Azula bossing her brother around for a bit.

"I'm so glad you decided to come," Katara smiled at Azula.

"Well, I did promise, didn't I?" Azula replied as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. She looked over at the other table, smiling and waving. Katara quickly looked in the same direction, noticing Mai responding with a similar gesture. Mai seemed very surprised to see Azula, and so were the others. Still, Mai didn't appear angry or disappointed, quite the contrary. Katara wondered if Mai had actually hoped that she and Azula weren't faking it. Maybe Mai still cared about Azula, even if she was angry about the past and what had happened with Ty Lee and her family.

"I love the outfit, Azula," Yue joined the conversation, smiling at Azula. "Well, you always look stunning, but this is definitely one of your best."

"Thank you," Azula bowed her head lightly. "You are also a classy dresser, Yue. I love the collar," she smiled lightly before turning to Katara. "You already know what I think about your dress, Katara." Katara found herself blushing slightly.

"You guys are getting pretty friendly, aren't you?" Yue grinned at the pair.

Azula shrugged in response. "Katara annoys me a lot less than most people," she admitted generously.

"And Azula is always so charming," Katara rolled her eyes.

The conversation was interrupted when Sokka returned to the table, bringing with him not just one raspberry mojito for Azula, but a tray with four glasses, a mojito for each of them. "I figured if it's as good as Azula says, then we all should have one," Sokka grinned, sitting down with the girls. "And after that we are definitely dancing," he looked at Yue, his girlfriend nodding back at him. "I imagine that's fine with you now?" Sokka looked over at his sister. "Are you going to dance with Azula, or… come to think of it, you guys, is this a date or what?"

The look in Azula's eyes strongly suggested that Sokka should just shut up and mind his own business, but Katara knew that she should at least try and offer some kind of explanation to Sokka. She couldn't say that this was a date (which it wasn't!), because that would be as good as admitting her sexual preferences to her brother, and she definitely was not ready for that conversation. She didn't think that Sokka had already guessed. Sokka just wasn't that perceptive. He couldn't have guessed. No, there was no way he knew.

"It's kind of a… pretend date, Sokka. You know, just to get the other boys to leave us alone, because neither Azula nor I fancy any of the boys here. Right, Azula?" she said, turning to her new friend. Azula seemed satisfied with that cover story, nodding swiftly. "We, uh… hadn't discussed dancing, though. I'd like to."

Azula seemed to consider the offer. She then took a swig of the mojito and nodded. "We can dance," she said without looking at Katara.

"Excellent!" Sokka exclaimed, rubbing his hands. "Shall we?" he stood up, extending his arm to Yue. Azula and Katara rose to follow them.

The music played in the club was the usual mix of the hippest tunes of the day that wild teenagers loved dancing to. 'Let's Twist Again' was followed by 'Locomotion', and then by what felt like the entire catalogue of the Ember Island Boys. Katara didn't mind that since it was her favorite music to dance to, especially her old favorites like 'Surfin' Safari' and 'Caldera City Girls'.

Katara knew that she wasn't the world's most accomplished dancer. While she was reasonably fit and agile, she just lacked the experience and her movements felt stiff and lacked the fluidity when compared to the grace with which Yue moved next to Sokka. However, Azula somehow looked even more ill at ease than Katara, which surprised the Water Tribe girl. Azula had a slightly more athletic build than Katara, which was why Katara expected her to be the better dancer, but somehow, she was stiffer even than Katara. Perhaps it was all due to her lack of experience, and just being socially awkward in these situations.

Still, after a while, both Katara and Azula seemed to really get into it, twisting their hips with increased vigor. "C'mon, Azula!" Katara laughed over the sound of the Ember Island Boys blaring on the stereo. "Shake that booty for us!"

"Say something so vulgar to me again, and I'm going home right away," Azula glared at her. She never stopped moving, though.

"Admit it! You love this!" Katara grinned at her, refusing to give up until she had forced Azula to smile.

"You're really good at it, Azula! Just let yourself go!" Yue added, laughing brightly as Sokka spun her around in circles.

"You bunch of Northern savages," Azula snorted. Still, a smile had blossomed on her lips as well. The sight of it warmed Katara's heart.

Eventually, the four of them returned to their table and Sokka rose to fetch them all a new round of drinks. "I really hope Sokka isn't planning to whip out a bottle of vodka tonight," Katara remarked, glancing at Yue.

"He won't," Yue shook her head. "He actually had planned to do it, but I had a talk with him about it. I don't think that it would be smart to get drunk tonight, considering some of the company." Katara nodded at that. "But we're not letting that bottle go to waste. We plan to get a little smashed back at the hotel later," Yue added with a wink.

"Just leave me out of it," Katara sighed, trying not to feel jealous. Yue wasn't even sixteen yet, so Katara really hoped that her brother and her best friend weren't going to do something seriously stupid under the influence of alcohol. Still, Yue was always sensible about these things and Katara wanted to trust her.

"By the way, Kat… I remember how much fun we had on the dance floor last year," Yue leaned closer to speak in a hushed tone. "I'm definitely taking you out for a spin later."

"That's fine with me, as long as Sokka is okay with it," Katara replied. She noticed Azula watching them with an odd, slightly curious look on her face. "Although perhaps we shouldn't leave Azula out here on her own, not with Chan and Hahn lurking about."

"I can take care of myself, thank you very much," Azula frowned, looking a little annoyed.

"What are we arguing about now?" Sokka asked, returning with the drinks and distributing a new round of mojitos for them all.

"I plan on dancing with Katara for a bit, but Azula will need company," Yue explained, ignoring Azula's silent fuming.

"Well, if my sister is going to steal my girlfriend, maybe I should steal hers in retaliation," Sokka grinned at Azula.

"Don't even think about it, I'm not dancing with you," Azula shot back angrily. She then seemed to remember something. "And I'm not Katara's girlfriend!" Azula added sternly. Still, the lengthy pause between the two sentences made it feel very awkward. Azula must have realized that as well, blushing slightly.

"Sokka is just being annoying," Katara gave Azula an apologetic smile. "You don't object to me dancing with Yue, do you? I know we sort of agreed about letting the others assume that we're here together, so if you think that it's a bad idea for me to dance with Yue, then I won't do it."

"Just go. Like I said, I can take care of myself," Azula shrugged.

"Still, I would feel better if Sokka stayed with you," Katara said, giving her brother a pleading stare. "Could you please, Sokka?"

"Fine by me," her brother merely shrugged. If he was annoyed about Katara stealing Yue, he didn't show it. If anything, Sokka seemed to be rather amused and intrigued by Azula's presence. "I'm sure Azula and I will find a lot to talk about, right?" he grinned at the Fire Nation girl as Yue and Katara rose from the table and returned to the dance floor for some more wild hip twisting and booty shaking.

"How does Katara stand living under the same roof with you?" Azula wondered idly when Sokka kept stealing glances at her.

"Because I'm hilarious," Sokka grinned at the sulking Fire Nation girl. "No, seriously, I'm a wellspring of amazing jokes. Want to hear one?" Azula pursed her lips and shook her head, but Sokka ignored her. "How does a Water Tribesman build a house?"

Azula stared. "I don't know. How does a Water Tribesman build a house?"

"Igloos it together," Sokka sniggered. Azula groaned. "Oh, come on, that was a genuine knee-slapper!"

"You are the most ridic-" Azula began, but then froze mid-sentence. "Excuse me, I have to powder my nose," she uttered quickly, getting up from the table and disappearing in the nearby bathroom.

Sokka blinked in confusion, but then he noticed that the other Fire Nation girl, Zirin Sakai, had been on her way towards their table. For some reason, Azula had fled at the sight of her approach. Sokka turned to Zirin with a questioning stare, but she ignored him, following Azula into the bathroom. Sokka shrugged at the confusing scene, returning his attention to Yue dancing with his sister. Sokka continued to nurse his nonalcoholic mojito, unable to take his eyes off from the hypnotic movements of his girlfriend's hips. Sokka was so entranced by the view that he completely missed someone sitting down in the vacant seat next to him.

"Hey," his uninvited companion spoke up in a hoarse, smoky voice. Sokka turned towards his right and nearly jumped from surprise at suddenly finding himself staring in the scarred face of Zuko Nakamura.

"Uh… hey?" Sokka tried uncertainly. "Zuko, right? Can I help you with anything?"

"You can listen to what I have to say and be smart about it," Zuko replied. He seemed to be watching the doors of the girl's bathroom with a wary stare. "I noticed you all getting really cozy with Azula. Especially your sister."

"Yeah, it's kinda weird," Sokka admitted with an awkward laugh.

"It shouldn't just feel weird, you should be seriously worried," Zuko spoke grimly. "You have no idea what kind of person my sister is. She destroys everything she touches. She excels and delights at emotional manipulation. Get too close to her, and she'll suck you dry like a vampire."

"Alright, I can see that you aren't the biggest fan of your sister," Sokka replied warily. He was suspicious of Azula, but her brother was not exactly endearing himself to Sokka either. Sokka could not imagine ever saying things like that about Katara, especially behind her back. He wondered what sort of disaster could make siblings detest each other like this.

"I'm just saying that you should look out for your sister, Sokka," Zuko sighed. "She seems like one of those bleeding hearts who thinks that she can solve every problem in the world. Azula is going to have a ball tearing her apart. Your sister might believe that they're dating, but-"

"Oh, they're not dating for real, they're just hanging out together to discourage jerks like that Chan guy," Sokka said.

Zuko looked a little surprised. "That's weird. Ruon's girlfriend Mai told me that Azula and your sister joined them for a double date a week ago." Sokka spat out his drink, ending up coughing violently. "I'm guessing you didn't know that. This is what I mean about Azula. It's a constant web of scheming and manipulation. Anyway, consider yourself warned. I'm off," Zuko shrugged, getting up to leave.

"Leaving already?" Sokka looked at the older boy. "The evening is still young."

"I only came here because I didn't expect Azula to actually show up," Zuko replied. "Now that she's here, I have no interest in staying." And with that he left the club.

Sokka shook his head, unsure of what to make of it all. While he was still thinking about Zuko's words, Sokka noticed Zirin walking out of the bathroom, looking upset and frustrated. Azula emerged shortly after, a stony and emotionless look on her face as she resumed her seat at the table. Moments later, Yue and Katara returned to join them as well, looking happy and exhausted.

"Hey, so… I just heard that you two were on an actual date like a week ago," Sokka said, looking at both Azula and Katara.

The two girls exchanged uncomfortable stares. "Is that what you and Zuko were talking about earlier?" Katara asked.

"Fucking Zuko," Azula swore angrily. "Guess he's been talking with Ruon-Jian or Mai. Well, I suppose our fake date was successful then, if we managed to fool Mai."

"Another fake date?" Yue wondered, frowning slightly. "I guess it was on that off-day when we had to change our plans." Katara nodded guiltily. "Don't you realize that you could have just told us the truth, Kat?"

"I'm sorry," Katara sighed. "I didn't think Azula would have liked me talking about it, and I wanted to respect her wishes."

Azula looked touched by Katara's words. "Thanks," she nodded. "But I guess it was stupid to try and hide it from your brother and Yue. You're right, though. I did feel embarrassed."

"It's alright, Azula. You just wanted to impress your friend. I understand," Katara patted Azula's hand. "We don't have to talk about it anymore." Azula looked relieved at that. "Do we, guys?" Katara looked at Sokka and Yue.

"Well… no harm done, I guess," Sokka shrugged. He did seem to be eyeing Azula with increased wariness, though.

"Yes, it's not worth thinking about, I say," Yue agreed happily. "In fact, let's have more drinks and more dancing!"

"Right, I get the message. More drinks coming right up," Sokka sighed, getting up to fetch more nonalcoholic cocktails for himself and the girls.

The next few hours passed by in a blur between more drinking and dancing, the four of them having a great time, and even Azula was starting to loosen up, smiling and even laughing at Sokka's terrible puns, much to her own horror. Ruon-Jian and Mai occasionally joined them on the dance floor, and Katara was pleased to see Mai behaving much more pleasantly towards Azula. Mai also seemed completely convinced that Katara and Azula were a genuine couple, and fortunately Sokka and Yue both held their mouths shut to preserve their little deception.

The only drawback of this pleasant evening was Chan and Hahn becoming progressively more drunk and annoying. They became more and more insistent in their attempts to pressure Katara, Yue and Azula into dancing with them, and several times Sokka was forced to threaten them with bodily harm. Katara and Yue had somehow managed to separate the would-be brawlers, while Azula had unhelpfully urged Sokka to throw a punch.

It was half an hour past midnight, when Yue and Katara made the call to leave the nightclub before an actual fight broke out. The four of them soon found themselves out on the street in front of the hotel. Sokka shuffled around uncertainly before speaking up. "So… about that bottle of vodka. Anyone else up for it other than me and Yue?" he asked, clearly out of politeness, hoping that Katara and Azula would reject the offer.

"I'll have to turn down this unappealing offer of underage drinking, thanks," Azula scoffed, looking unimpressed.

"Me too," Katara nodded, then gesturing to Sokka and Yue. "Go ahead, you two. I'll just say goodbye to Azula before heading up to my room."

"If you're sure," Yue said, not looking quite as happy as her boyfriend. "See you in the morning, Kat. And until next year, Azula," she smiled at the Fire Nation girl. Azula responded with a faint smile of her own.

"So…" Katara began uncertainly once they had been left all alone on the street.

"Yes, well… I should probably go," Azula also appeared hesitant.

"Wait! Before you go," Katara suddenly thought of something. She quickly rummaged through her purse, finding a pen and a piece of paper. Katara quickly scribbled down a series of digits before passing the paper strip over to Azula.

"What's this?" Azula looked at the piece of paper.

"My phone number, silly," Katara chuckled. "Azula, it's sometimes really hard to figure out what you think or feel, but you should know that I consider you a friend. And that means you can call me at any time you want, for any reason, big or small. I know that you probably won't call me, but I just want you to know that the offer is there."

"Oh." Azula seemed a little overwhelmed, trying to recompose herself. "Thanks. You probably shouldn't call me, though. One of my father's loyal stooges might answer. I can't say if you're the kind of friend that my father would approve of."

"Well, I wouldn't want to get you into trouble," Katara nodded.

"Anyway. See you next year in Ba Sing Se?" Azula spoke up, awkwardly sticking her hand out for a shake. "I won't mind if you come second after me."

"I guess we'll see about that," Katara replied with a somber, bittersweet smile on her lips. "Until next year… and take care of yourself, Azula."

Azula nodded at her and finally turned to walk away, leaving Katara to watch as she walked up to a taxi parked at the side of the street and got in after a brief exchange of words with the driver. Last year, they had parted with Katara having to watch a badly beaten Azula hobbling and climbing into her father's limo. At least, this year was an improvement over that.

This was the bit after the tournaments that Katara always found painful, saying farewells to her friends, many of whom she wouldn't see for months. She wouldn't see Azula for a whole year, until the next U18 finals. And while Katara hadn't yet become close to Azula in the way she had bonded with Toph and Aang, in some ways, parting with Azula felt more painful. Katara could sense that the other girl desperately needed a friend, just someone to be there for her, even if Azula herself perhaps hadn't realized it yet. Katara only hoped that Azula wouldn't forget about her completely, even if she knew that both time and distance worked against their friendship.

Two days following the end of the tournament, Azula found herself being awoken by one of the estate's servants, informing her that a car was waiting outside to take her to the family manor on the outskirts of Caldera City where her father was waiting for her. Azula quickly got ready and twenty minutes later she was sitting in the back of her father's limo, filled with trepidation throughout the roughly forty minutes long drive traversing the capital.

Azula knew that she had accomplished the goal set out by her father. She shouldn't have felt nervous about meeting Ozai, and yet, she couldn't stop herself from turning into a bundle of nerves. What if her father had found something else to be angry about? Maybe he had somehow learned of how much she had been hanging out with Katara Enuaraq and had jumped to the wrong conclusions? Azula hoped that her father wouldn't find anything wrong with her behavior, but she quietly prepared herself for the worst.

She still hadn't fully processed everything that had happened during the tournament. Azula had expected that her father's insistence to find herself a sparring partner would turn into an absolute disaster. But instead of a disaster, she had found… a friend? Azula still felt hesitant and apprehensive thinking about Katara as her friend. Katara couldn't really be a part of her life in that way, as a proper friend. Azula didn't think that Ozai would look fondly upon her socializing with someone as plain and poor as Katara. Still, Azula could not lie to herself about wanting a friend like Katara. Hanging out with Katara had made her feel all sorts of strange and new sensations, things she hadn't been exposed to before. Katara was genuine in a way that was new and unaccustomed to Azula. Katara even made it possible for Azula to endure a blockhead like her brother Sokka. And Yue Taqqiq was also pleasant and tolerable company. Azula already missed that evening of them all having fun together at that Caldera nightclub.

The limo eventually passed through the manor gates and came to a halt. The driver quickly rushed to open the doors for her and helped Azula climb out. She was about to head straight for the front entrance of the manor, but then she noticed her father. He was standing in front of the large garage, waving for her to join him. With a frantically beating heart, Azula wasted no more time before joining Ozai in front of the garage.

"Azula, my beloved daughter," her father smiled at her, which was a rare sight in itself. "Words cannot express how happy you have made me! That picture of my worthless son's disappointed expression in the papers. It was worth every minute we spent practicing, was it not? Azula, this was one of the proudest moments in my life, and you delivered it to me. I am beyond impressed with you, daughter."

"Th-thank you, father," Azula managed, feeling overwhelmed. She felt like her heart might explode in her chest, it was so full, swelling with pride.

"You have given me the greatest gift I could ask for, Azula. For that, I have a gift of my own," Ozai smiled, pressing a button on the garage doors. They opened, revealing a brand new sports car, a red two-seater roadster. "A brand new Alpha Romeo Spider, just for you, Azula. I could not think of a worthier gift."

"A car? You're giving me… a car? A car of my own?" tears began to well up in Azula's eyes.

"Yes, this car will be yours to use when you turn sixteen in a few months," Ozai nodded at her, smiling. "I've already paid for a driving instructor, so that you can have a student's license ready on your birthday. You're starting tomorrow."

"I… I don't know what to say, father," Azula managed. "Thank you doesn't begin to cover it."

"Anything for my amazing daughter," Ozai said, pulling her into his embrace and she happily accepted it, feeling her father hold her close and kiss the top of her head. At that moment, she didn't care what the rest of the world thought about her father. She didn't even care about the occasional beating or two. In that very moment, Azula felt like she had the best father in the entire world.

"Katara! Katara, girl! Get up here this instant!" Katara cringed at the insistent tone in her grandmother's voice, immediately tearing herself away from her textbooks. Katara had never enjoyed studying in the isolation of her own room. She much preferred to stretch out on the bearskin rug on the living room floor, right in front of the TV set.

"Coming, Gran-Gran!" Katara shouted, running up the stairs. Oddly, Kanna's voice was coming from Katara's own room. Frowning, Katara walked up to her room and entered, gasping when she saw that her grandmother had laid out on her bed all the purchases Azula had made for her, the mini dress, the kitten heels, gloves and purse. "Umm… you've been going through my stuff, Gran-Gran?" she asked.

"I thought it was strange that you hadn't put your suitcase away in the attic," Kanna explained sternly. "I wanted to check it for more laundry before putting it away, and instead I found all of this. These things look very expensive, Katara. Where did you get them?"

Katara was about to start explaining herself when Sokka's head poked out of his room, directly across the hallway from her. "Uh-oh, is Katara in trouble?" he grinned like a complete doofus.

"Shut up, Sokka," Katara hissed at him. "Well, you see, Gran-Gran… I made a new friend in Caldera City and she bought these things for me."

"She just bought these things for you?" Kanna repeated incredulously. "And what did you have to do for her, Katara?"

"Nothing! We were just hanging out together, studying our Pai Sho games. Azula simply felt grateful for my company, that is all," Katara replied defensively.

"And just who is this mysterious Azula?" Kanna demanded.

"Azula Nakamura," Sokka explained unhelpfully. "Katara's sugar mommy is the heir to the Nakamura Industries."

Gran-Gran looked like she was about to have a stroke. "I'm sure I don't want to know what a sugar mommy is, but Katara… you shouldn't be spending your time with people like that, child," she managed weakly. "They are cut from a different cloth than us. They are dangerous and could destroy our family on a whim, with a flick of their wrist."

"Azula seems very arrogant and conceited, sure, but she's still only human," Katara replied resolutely. "I know there's goodness and decency in her."

"I know you always want to assume the best about people, child, but on this occasion, I must insist that you stay away from this girl," Kanna said sternly. "I know that your father would agree with me, Katara. You know that the Nakamura name is not cherished in this household."

"I know, Gran-Gran," Katara sighed. The Nakamura name was cursed in the Enuaraq household because of what the Nakamura Industries oil rig job was doing to their father, slowly grinding Hakoda's spirit into dust. It was a name loathed in the community because of the detrimental effect the oil rig had on the coastal ecology. Still, Katara could not hold any of this against Azula. She was only fifteen. That was why Katara had no intention of following through on her grandmother's request.

Not that it really mattered in the end. Almost a week had passed since the conclusion of the tournament, and Azula still hadn't called her. Katara had a feeling that Azula would not call her. At least Yue called every day to speak with her and Sokka. And Yue was still the girl who held all the strings to Katara's heart, but despite all that, Katara found it impossible to put Azula Nakamura completely out of her thoughts.

Next chapter: Let's check in on how Azula and Katara are spending their respective summers.

Chapter Text

The start of Azula's summer was far more pleasant when compared to the previous year. The school semester at Li and Lo's boarding school ended around mid-June, and Azula was relieved that her father did not express disappointment with her end grades. Her scores were above 90% in every subject except for chemistry and physics, where they hovered at around 80% mark, but it was enough to please Ozai. Going back to school hadn't proved to be as rewarding as Azula had hoped, because by the end of the semester she still hadn't managed to connect with any of the other girls. At least they were outwardly polite and respectful to Azula. Perhaps it was Azula's own fault for not showing enough enthusiasm in gossiping about boys that still earned her the occasional 'haughty lesbian' comment behind her back.

After the end of the school year, Azula did not travel to Sozin's Island immediately, contrary to what she had expected. She still had a couple of weeks worth of driving lessons to negotiate with her instructor, an irritatingly scrupulous and nagging man who blew her every little mistake out of proportion and scolded her mercilessly when she stepped on the gas because she was so tired of going at thirty miles per hour in a fifty mile zone. Still, the driving lessons were paying off, and she was reassured that in a couple of months on her sixteenth birthday, there would be a student's driving license waiting for her. Azula could not wait to just hop into her red Spider and go wherever she wished, even if she had to place that annoying label identifying a young driver on the windshield and at the back of the car. Oh, and as a young driver, she also had to keep at least ten miles under the speed limit, although that was one rule which Azula privately resolved to ignore as much as she could.

Azula was glad that her relationship with her father had improved as of late, as a result of her managing to attain all the goals he had set for her. It was almost a year since the last time she had suffered a beating, and it had faded into a distant memory by now, even if her father occasionally still made vague threats of physical punishment when he was talking to Azula about the consequences of not meeting the goals he had set for her. Of course, the psychological pressure to always be at her best remained constant, but Azula knew that it was all done for her sake, to keep her focused and on her toes. The stress that came with it, well, she just had to find a way to deal with it by becoming mentally stronger. And while Azula was devoted to her father, she did feel slightly relieved that lately Ozai was spending more time traveling than being at home. His business trips and participation in Pai Sho tournaments took her father all over the globe and often left Azula for weeks without any supervision.

Loneliness was still ever present in Azula's life, and to her dismay, she was becoming worse at enduring it. She knew exactly who to blame for it, and it was none other than Katara Enuaraq who had showed her what difference having a friend could mean. Over the months, Azula had tried to call Katara at least a dozen times, always hanging up right after dialing the last digit. Only once she had allowed the call to go through, and it had been answered by a hoarse male voice at the other end of the line, presumably Katara's father. Azula had instantly lost all courage and had disconnected the call. Azula had then tried to reach out to Mai. Unfortunately, Mai's father had been transferred to lead a Nakamura Industries research site on Shuhon Island and he had uprooted the entire family, taking them with him, so for Azula meeting Mai was no longer feasible. They had exchanged a few phone calls, but Mai was just awful on the phone, and their conversations had felt awkward and stilted.

It was on the first day of July that Azula finally arrived on Sozin's Island, via one of the private sports planes owned by her father. Ozai would be traveling for at least another week, and Azula was looking forward to simply spending some quality time with her beloved horses and exploring everything the island had to offer. As she was walking up to the Sozin's Island manor for the first time since last summer, the serving staff lined up to welcome her. It was then that Azula was taken by complete surprise when she suddenly saw a face that she hadn't expected to see among the servant girls.

Azula somehow managed to remain silent and keep a straight face, simply making sure that she had correctly identified her old acquaintance. Afterwards, she called the governess of the manor aside to exchange a few words. "I see we have a lot of new staff this year," she told the aged governess.

"Yes, Miss Nakamura, as always there is some seasonal turnaround," the older woman replied respectfully. "But I can assure you that all the new hires have been carefully vetted. As always, we are doing all the hiring through Madame Elle's agency."

"I see," Azula nodded thoughtfully. She then subtly indicated the servant girl she was curious about. "I was just wondering about that girl. She seems awfully familiar. It's like I know her from somewhere."

"Oh, I doubt that, My Lady, she doesn't spend time in your circles," the governess smiled politely. "Hard worker, that one, she has been a great help to me from the very start. I'm not surprised, though. Rizin came with the most glowing credentials among all of the new hires."

"Rizin, is it?" Azula managed, groaning inwardly. "Yes, I'm sure she's very competent," she then nodded, walking away to settle into her rooms.

Still, Azula was not going to let the matter of this unwelcomed intruder drop. It didn't take her long to corner this 'Rizin' while she was busy dusting in one of the downstairs living rooms. "So…" Azula spoke with what she hoped was a threatening tone as she closed the doors behind her and walked up to 'Rizin', or Zirin, as she was known to most people. "You have a lot of nerve to show up in my household after everything you've done."

"Admit it, you're impressed," Zirin grinned at her, playfully whirling the feather duster.

"Oh, I'm really impressed," Azula snorted. "I'm also telling my father. You'll be out of here before you can utter another empty apology."

"Please don't do that, Azula," Zirin gave her a pleading stare. "What do you think I'm trying to achieve here?"

"Oh, I don't know… forging your credentials with a hiring agency, that doesn't sound shady at all," Azula rolled her eyes. "I would guess that you are here for another attempt to steal from me. I would be surprised if your sister wasn't lurking somewhere nearby."

"When I told you that June has abandoned her old life, I wasn't lying, Azula. Although, she did help me to forge my credentials, yes," Zirin admitted. "June has a decent job now. She works in a garage on the outskirts of Caldera, fixing motorbikes. She's happy and wouldn't want to risk what she has, so no, this isn't some attempted burglary, Azula. How does that even make sense? I made my presence perfectly clear to you. I wasn't hiding."

Azula scrunched her nose, deep in thought. Annoyingly, Zirin's words made a lot of sense. This couldn't have been some burglary plot, not with Zirin telegraphing her presence like that. "Alright, let's assume that I believe you," she stated then. "That doesn't explain why you have gone to such lengths to be here."

"Well, the pay is really good and I wanted a better summer's job than flipping burgers at Flameo's," Zirin chuckled. Azula narrowed her eyes at the other girl, demanding a better explanation. "Alright, fair enough, I'll come clean with you, Azula. I've said it plenty of times before and I'll repeat it. I really like you a great deal. It hurts that you still haven't forgiven me for the mistake that I made. I meant it when I said that I will keep working for your forgiveness until you can finally grant it to me. So, that's why I'm here, to keep working for your forgiveness. Your every wish is my desire, Your Ladyship," she added with a gallant curtsy that made her short skirt shift in a way that made Azula's face feel extremely warm.

"Right…" Azula managed, not really sure what to say. Zirin was damnably persistent and devilishly charming. And by the spirit of Agni, she looked incredibly hot in her servant's uniform. Truth be told, Azula had already forgiven Zirin after their conversation back in March, at the U18 finals, she just hadn't told it to Zirin. And she wasn't going to tell her now, either, not before making the other girl work for it some more. "Well, I wish you good luck with that, Zirin."

"Thank you, My Lady," Zirin bowed again as Azula turned to walk away. "I trust that My Lady will call upon me whenever she has a wish to be satisfied. Any wish at all," Zirin added in a sultry voice.

Azula could only huff as she walked away, painfully aware that she did so while being extremely red in the face.

Following her return from the Fire Nation, the next few months of Katara's life were predictably dull, falling back into the routine of everyday struggles of living in Cape Kuruk, the final frontier at the edge of the civilized world. Schoolwork came to her as easy as ever and she finished the semester with the best scores across the board, much to the envy of her peers and the delight of her father. Yue's regular calls were always the highlight of her day, and aside from just chatting about whatever, they kept sharpening their Pai Sho game together. Considering that Hahn Adjuk was no longer eligible to play in the U18 age bracket, both Katara and Yue felt very confident about qualifying for the next year's finals and then traveling together to Ba Sing Se come next spring.

Despite her hopes, Katara hadn't received a phone call from Azula Nakamura after they had become something akin to friends back in Caldera City. Katara wasn't terribly surprised about it, however. Azula didn't seem to really know how to maintain friendships, mostly because she had little practice dealing with friends. That thought made Katara feel rather depressed. She couldn't stop hoping that Azula would safely qualify for the next year's championship and perhaps then they could resume and hopefully strengthen their friendship come the next spring.

After the end of the school semester, Katara spent the next two weeks in hyperactive anxiety waiting for her departure for Uncle Iroh's Pai Sho summer camp. Katara had worked herself up in such frenzy that she often found it impossible to fall asleep and as a result, the bottle of Librium pills had again been called upon for help. She had packed her suitcases a week before departure. She had discussed every detail of every planned activity with Yue. She had made sure to warn Sokka not to do a repeat performance of the previous year and hitchhike all the way up to Serpent's Lake. Fortunately, Yue had already had this conversation with Sokka, and Katara felt reassured that this year she wouldn't have to compete for Yue's attention with her brother. Lastly, Yue had suggested a sneaky plan to travel to Serpent's Lake a day early just so that she could reserve one of the double bedrooms for herself and Katara.

Their plan had worked out perfectly, and in the end Toph hadn't even kicked up a fuss about not being able to share with Katara. It led Katara to suspect that last year Toph had wanted to share with her mostly just so that she could make sure that nothing happened between Katara and Aang, of which there was no chance now. Everyone seemed to be happy with their arrangements. Katara got to share a room with Yue, while Toph and Aang appeared to be tighter than ever. They were still firmly at the 'best buddies' stage, however, but Katara kept reminding herself that the two younger kids hadn't even turned fourteen yet and there was plenty of time for them to get together, if the fates were willing.

All the kids from last year's camp were once again in attendance, along with some new faces, younger children whom Katara didn't know very well. Zuko Nakamura was present, and even had the same girlfriend as last year along with him, the Earth Kingdom girl Jin. Katara was pleasantly surprised that Zuko could keep a steady girlfriend. He had never been particularly pleasant to Katara, so she considered him something of a jerk, but perhaps he was still capable of being decent to at least some people in his life. Haru hadn't wasted much time before getting together with Kori Morishita, and the two were constantly sneaking around the gardens, looking for opportunities to make out. Meng was still thirsting after Aang, but since she was understandably afraid of Toph, she made the wise decision to keep a respectable distance from the target of her affections. Teo was still friendly with everyone, but seemed to have become particularly good friends with Aang as of late. Ghashiun still acted dodgy and stank of cheap tobacco worse than ever before.

All in all, the camp was once again off to a great start, and come one rare, rainy evening, the changing wind gathering clouds above the Serpent Lake and blowing them eastwards, the group of four friends had sat down in the larger room shared by Yue and Katara to play Cluedo, a board game that Yue had brought with her from Agna Qel'a.

"I can't believe how Twinkletoes always goes for Colonel Mustard," Toph commented when Aang once again grabbed the yellow token of a brawny fellow.

"Hey, we all have our favorite colors," Aang replied defensively. "Why does Katara always grab Mrs. Peacock? Obviously because she's blue. Same with Yue and Mrs. White."

"Aang is right," Yue grinned. "I mean, Toph… why else would you go for Rev Green when Mrs. Scarlet is available? I imagine it's because green is your favorite color, right?"

"Well… maybe," Toph shrugged. "I just don't like Mrs. Scarlet. She looks like a prissy little bitch."

"She kind of looks a bit like Azula Nakamura," Yue laughed.

"See, that's what I meant, a prissy little bitch," Toph grinned.

"Aww, that's not fair, Toph," Katara argued. "Azula isn't that bad, like I told you."

"I'm not sure I buy that, Sugar Queen," Toph shook her head. "She was probably messing with you."

"No, I don't think so, Toph," Yue said thoughtfully. "Azula was still decent to us after the tournament. She came to the after-party because Katara asked her to."

"Wow, that's so unbelievable I want to see that for myself," Toph laughed.

"See, Katara is so nice, she can soothe even the most savage beast," Aang winked at her.

"Haha, stop it! I don't think Azula would appreciate being compared to a savage beast," Katara chuckled. "That said… if she was here to play with us, she'd definitely pick Mrs. Scarlet, no doubt about it."

"I still can't imagine Azula Nakamura just casually sitting down like this to play some board games with friends," Toph shook her head. "I bet she doesn't even have friends."

"You're right, and that's the problem," Katara sighed. "I'm convinced that she can actually be nice around other people. She just doesn't know how because she hasn't had many friends in her life. It's really kind of sad if you think about it."

"It is," Aang nodded at her. "But at least you're trying to be her friend. That should count for something," he smiled at Katara.

"I wouldn't mind being friends with Azula either," Yue shrugged. "She's welcome to hang out with me and Sokka anytime. I mean, she even laughed at some of Sokka's puns! That means she can't be that bad, right?"

"Right," Katara nodded with a smile on her face, turning to face Aang and Toph. "And when you catch up to us in the U18 bracket in a couple of years, maybe you can also hang out with Azula and see for yourself that she isn't the monster everyone thinks she is."

Aang was nodding back at her excitedly, while Toph for some reason chuckled uneasily, nervously rubbing the back of her neck. "In a couple of years… right…" she managed awkwardly.

"What was that, Toph?" Katara asked.

"Uh, well… there's something that you guys should know about the next year's U18 finals in Ba Sing Se," Toph began to explain, looking a little uneasy. "Haru won't be back to defend his title, right? He's moving on to the U21's or becoming a pro, I don't know. But who's realistically left to defend the pride of the Earth Kingdom?"

"Well… there's Ghashiun, Teo…" Yue reasoned aloud.

"Joo Dee and Kori will also probably qualify," Aang added.

"But can you see any of them actually winning the tournament?" Toph asked. "They can't beat either of you," she pointed at both Yue and Katara. "And they definitely can't beat Azula Nakamura. The Earth Kingdom is hosting the tournament and they don't have anyone talented enough to realistically challenge for the gold medal. They might not even have anyone placing on the podium and that would be a serious embarrassment," Toph explained. "That's why the organizers came up with a plan. You see… I'm not going back to the U15's next year. I'm moving straight up to the U18 bracket. I've already been promised a wild card."

"What?!" Yue exclaimed, dropping the cards held in her hand from surprise.

"But… but you'll be only fourteen!" Katara cried, equally shocked.

"I can't believe this… you're not coming back to the U15's?" Aang asked, wide-eyed as he looked at Toph. "I'm going to be all alone there! Why didn't you tell me sooner?" he stared at the Earth Kingdom girl, a little accusingly.

Toph let out a heavy sigh. "Because I knew you'd be upset, Twinkletoes," she said in a small voice. "I'm sorry…"

"Well…" Aang hesitated, also letting out a sigh he had been holding. "I'm not angry at you, Toph. This probably wasn't your idea to begin with."

"No, it wasn't," Toph nodded. "But I did agree to it when I was given the choice by my father. Sorry, Aang, but most of the games at the U15's just felt like walkovers, and you were the only exception. I wanna test myself against some real opposition."

"I guess I can understand that," Aang nodded reluctantly.

"I just can't wrap my head around the thought that Toph is going to play with us next year," Katara said, looking at Yue. "That's both crazy and awesome."

"Oh yes," Yue nodded, looking excited. "Even if it means that we have another very strong rival to contend with. But you know what they say, if you want to be called the best, you have to play and beat the best. And Toph is among the best."

"This lady?" Toph grinned, pointing at Yue. "Yep, she gets it." She paused for a moment. "Anyway, shall we play something that isn't Pai Sho?" Toph pointed at the Cluedo board. "Dr. Black's body is getting cold while we're chatting away here."

The four friends immersed themselves in the game for a while, before Yue finally made the first accusation. "I suspect… Colonel Mustard with the candlestick in the lounge!" she exclaimed.

Katara burst into laughter at that. "I'm sorry, the whole mental image of Aang assaulting someone with a candlestick just got to me," she explained, the others starting to laugh as well.

"Wait a moment," Aang suddenly stopped laughing. "Does that mean you can see me assaulting someone with any of the other available weapons?"

"Of course not," Katara rolled her eyes. "We all know you couldn't hurt a fly, Aang."

"Okay, now I'm actually curious," Yue spoke up with a gleam in her eyes. "Just play along with me, alright? Imagine if you were in the place of your token and this was all real. What weapon would you choose? Oh, and in which room?"

"Yue! I wouldn't be able to kill anyone!" Katara protested, Aang nodding alongside with her. "That's a horrible thing to think about."

"Oh, come on, don't be such ridiculous goody-goodies, it's just pretending for fun," Toph snorted. "Don't you guys have any imagination whatsoever? I know exactly what I would use, and where."

"Tell us, Toph," Yue urged excitedly.

"Lead pipe. I'm definitely using lead pipe," Toph nodded with certainty. "And I would sneak up on them in the kitchen."

"Brutal! I love it," Yue giggled. "I don't know, I'd probably go with something more sneaky and subtle. I'd probably use a dagger in the ballroom. You know, one moment we're dancing, and the next… stab!"

"You two are just awful!" Katara scowled at the two other girls.

"Oh, get off your high horse, Kat!" Yue winked at her. "You've got to choose something, too. We're not letting this drop, are we, Toph?" Toph shook her head with determination.

"Ugh, fine…" Katara groaned. She quickly looked at the collection of available weapons. "Alright, I would go for what's that least messy. That's probably the revolver. And I would do it in the hall. I imagine most of the other rooms have carpets and a lot of expensive items that you wouldn't want to get blood on, or shatter with bullets. Hall would probably be the easiest to clean, too," Katara mused. She then looked around at the faces of the others, gaping at her. "… what?" Katara asked.

"We didn't expect you to put that much thought into it, Katara," Yue chuckled.

"Katara would be the world's most considerate killer," Toph laughed aloud, then turning her attention towards the uncomfortable looking Aang. "Come on, Twinkletoes, choose something!" she demanded.

"Aww, come on guys, you know that I'm a pacifist," Aang sighed.

"A pacifist would still defend themselves if someone tried to kill them, right?" Yue asked. Aang nodded reluctantly. "Then just imagine that Dr. Black is there to kill you. You can't leave the house because the keys needed to escape are in possession of Dr. Black. It's literally either you or him. What would you use to dispatch him?"

"Well… when you put it that way," Aang said thoughtfully. "You're going to laugh, but… I would use that candlestick after all. Oh, and I'd do it in the library."

The others all began to laugh. "Candlestick in the library, that's really classy, Aang," Yue grinned. "Anyway, let's continue the game. Aang still has to refute my standing accusation."

Aang, in fact, did manage to clear Colonel Mustard of the murder accusation as the game progressed. The game ended with Toph correctly identifying Katara's Mrs. Peacock as the murderess with the rope in the conservatory. They played a few more games afterwards and Yue seemed to do the best, while Aang and Katara generally struggled to make correct accusations. By the time they were bored of Cluedo, it was already late in the evening, the midnight hour approaching. The rain had stopped pouring outside and a cool and refreshing breeze was flowing in through the partly opened window.

They were about to bid one another goodnight, when Aang suddenly spoke up. "So, I've been thinking about something else while we were playing," he began.

"Clearly, because you were just awful at Cluedo," Toph elbowed him in the ribs.

"Toph, I'm trying to be serious here," Aang sighed at his best friend. "I've been thinking about the next year's finals. I mean… I could go back to defend my old title, but a year later it's going to be even easier, especially with Toph not there to challenge me. So, I've decided to do something else," he said, taking a deep breath. "Once I return home after the summer camp, I'm asking Gyatso to submit my application to the U18 qualifiers."

"What?" Toph gasped.

"Are you sure, Aang?" Katara asked, sounding concerned. "Winning another U15 title could be really good for you. Don't you need that stipend?"

"Well, sure… but I think I need to be playing stronger opposition more than I need the money. You can't buy that sort of experience with yuan," Aang replied.

"I think it's a good plan," Yue nodded in support of Aang's idea. "Remember Toph, you said that the Earth Kingdom talent pool is kind of shallow right now." Toph nodded at that. "Well, that means Aang should have an easy time qualifying, right?"

"Oh, no doubt about that, it'll be a breeze for him," Toph agreed. "I mean… Aang, if you're really sure about this, I'm definitely cool with you making a go of it. I just thought that since you would have to go through the qualifiers it might not be worth it."

"Nah, I'm really committed about doing this," Aang nodded with certainty. "Besides, this means we're all going to be playing at the same tournament next year, which is just awesome, isn't it? Why wait two more years when Toph and I are good enough to make the jump sooner?"

"I think it's a great idea," Katara agreed, her concerns having been put to rest. "It's going to be great to have the old gang together in Ba Sing Se," she added as the four friends joined in for a group hug.

Azula's summer was unfolding much more differently than she had imagined it. She had figured that her stay on Sozin's Island would be a slow and boring affair, what with her father absent for long periods of time. Even when Ozai came to the island to stay for a week and a half, he didn't interact with Azula much, sequestering himself away with Zhao. Azula understood her father's reasons for doing so. In a couple of months, Ozai was scheduled to defend his title of world champion among professionals in a grueling tournament that would last for five straight weeks, the six best players in the world playing four round-robins, twenty games in all, a daunting marathon to determine the best player in the world.

The final qualifying tournament for the world championship finals had come to a conclusion only a couple of weeks ago. Ozai had been attending it to observe his rivals playing and studying them for weaknesses, but also to support Zhao in his attempt to qualify. Much to Azula's petty delight and Ozai's great disappointment, Zhao had failed to do so. Zhao's presence at the finals would have guaranteed four easy wins for Ozai, but now every game he played would be fiercely contested. Her father would be facing past champions like Bumi Dhawan and Pakku Karetak, along with the best Fire Nation grandmasters like Piandao Mori and Jeong-Jeong Kaneko. Long Feng completed the lineup and was considered something of an outsider for the tournament.

With her father spending so much time in preparation, there were many days when Azula only saw him and Zhao for dinner, such as on this particular occasion. "Azula, I'm sorry that I haven't had the time to personally oversee your preparations this summer," Ozai began, sitting at the end of the dinner table, Azula to his left with Zhao across the table from her. "I trust that you are keeping your skills as sharp as ever."

"I am, father," Azula replied dutifully. Her training was progressing well, although perhaps not quite as smoothly as her father would have hoped. Her beloved horses were a powerful distraction, as was the unexpected presence of Zirin. The other girl certainly knew how to mess with Azula's thoughts. At the beginning of Azula's stay on Sozin's Island, Zirin always somehow managed to appear exactly where Azula was at the time, the older girl acting all flirty and seductive whenever she could get away with it, further confounding Azula and making it very hard for her to rat Zirin out. It didn't help that Zirin was absolutely killing that maid's uniform in a way that made Azula's knees go weak and wobbly.

"I have no reason to distrust you, daughter," Ozai nodded approvingly at her. "All the same, I will ask Zhao to take an evening off to test your progress."

"It would be my pleasure," Zhao smiled at Azula in a way that made her stomach churn slightly.

"If you think it necessary, father," Azula replied. She wasn't going to openly argue with Ozai.

"I do," Ozai nodded, resuming eating. A short while later, one of the servant girls came up to take away the tray of dirty dishes. Somehow, Zirin had managed to secure that role for tonight, the older girl unable to stop herself from giving Azula a flirty wink as she worked, a gesture that made Azula blush slightly. Unfortunately for them, Ozai had noticed the exchange. "Excuse me?" he bellowed at the suddenly startled Zirin. "What is the meaning of this? Azula, is this wench bothering you?" he turned towards his daughter.

Azula just about managed to get a hold of her nerves and schooled her expression into casual neutrality. "Of course not, father," she shrugged. "She is an irrelevant nobody. I couldn't care less about some lowly peasant."

"I should dismiss you for acting with such crass familiarity towards my daughter," Ozai glared at Zirin. "What do you have to say for yourself?"

"I'm deeply sorry, Mr. Nakamura, I meant no disrespect," Zirin bowed deeply, trembling in fear. "Please accept my most sincere apologies, Miss Nakamura."

"You should be kicked off this island right away, wench. Instead, consider this your first and final warning," Ozai growled. "Now get lost!"

"Thank you, Mr. Nakamura," Zirin sighed in relief, quickly grabbing the tray of dishes and departing in a hurry. Zhao accompanied her retreat with a hungry stare that seemed to focus on Zirin's exquisite, long legs.

"Delightful," Zhao chuckled under his breath. "Saucy minx, that one," he nodded at Ozai.

Ozai snorted with laughter. "Normally, I would say go for it, my friend," he said. "But we have a lot to cover in my preparations and I need you focused. Leave the wench alone for now."

"As long as we both celebrate in style after the finals," Zhao remarked, both of them sharing a laugh.

Azula observed the entire exchange, struggling hard to stop herself from glaring angrily at Zhao. Over the weeks spent on Sozin's Island, Azula had found it harder and harder to stay angry at Zirin. Lately, they had actually managed to engage in lengthy conversations without Azula bringing up Zirin's previous betrayal of her trust. In her heart, Azula had already forgiven Zirin. She just hadn't said the words aloud, and yet somehow she suspected that Zirin already knew.

And Azula also found herself more and more attracted to Zirin, unable to deny her own growing feelings. It was becoming increasingly difficult not to act on these feelings, but obviously she would not risk it while her father and Zhao were present on the island. Once they left again, however… perhaps she would finally muster the courage to approach Zirin. But no, Azula had to admit that most likely the older girl would have to make the first move.

Azula just hoped that Zhao wouldn't get any ideas about trying something despite her father's wishes. The mere idea of Zhao accosting Zirin was making Azula fantasize about violently shoving a fork right into Zhao's eyeball and hearing him squeal like a stuck pig. She wasn't going to let anything like that happen to Zirin.

Next chapter: A surprise guest visit's Uncle Iroh's summer camp (and no, it's not Sokka), while Azula and Zirin make progress.

Chapter Text

At the start of their third week at Uncle Iroh's summer Pai Sho camp, the Serpent's Lake estate was buzzing with excitement, anticipating a visit from a surprising guest. This particular guest was known in the circles of Pai Sho enthusiasts as "Guru" Pathik, a legendary and almost mythical figure in the eyes of many. An old man in his eighties, he had dominated the Pai Sho scene for a decade almost sixty years ago. A three-time world champion, Pathik had then unexpectedly retired in his early thirties, disappearing from the public eye to devote himself to spiritual pursuits, forsaking all of his material wealth to live out the rest of his life as an eccentric hermit.

The collection of "Guru" Pathik's best games was a part of the curriculum of any self-respecting and aspiring Pai Sho hopeful. Pathik's style had been considered unorthodox during his time, and while many had sought to copy his unusual way of playing, nobody had managed to do so successfully. It was his unique style of play together with his mysterious and reclusive lifestyle that had over the years slowly turned "Guru" Pathik into this almost myth of a man. There were only two men in the world who kept close contact with Pathik, Iroh Nakamura and Aang's foster father, Gyatso Jetsun. Pathik had made his last public appearance almost four years ago. The news that this Pai Sho legend planned to travel from his obscure Earth Kingdom wilderness hideout to spend a couple of days at Iroh's lakeside estate, sent shockwaves throughout the camp and made all the kids dying from excitement to meet one of their idols.

Katara was immediately impressed by the old "Guru" upon his introduction to the kids attending the camp. With his white eyebrows, moustache and beard, Pathik looked positively ancient, almost like some kind of a mystical and powerful wizard. He wore simple yellow robes and walked around barefoot, with a much sprightlier and energetic step than expected from a man of his age. Katara found herself thinking that if Aang was ever to reach such a venerable age, she expected him to look a lot like Pathik, though perhaps with a less impressive beard.

After the breakfast, Iroh asked all the kids to gather in the estate garden and bring their Pai Sho boards with them. Once they had all set up their boards, waiting in anticipation, Iroh appeared together with "Guru" Pathik at his side. "Boys and girls, I have asked you all to gather here as a favor to my friend," Iroh smiled fondly at the older man by his side. "He has kindly agreed to play a simultaneous exhibition game with you all."

There were startled gasps of disbelief from all of the kids at the camp. Simultaneous displays, or simuls for short, were occasionally performed by great champions and grandmasters, playing up to thirty opponents at once. These simuls could serve a variety of purposes, educational for the junior players, or sometimes the grandmasters turned them into commercial opportunities. Katara had heard of Pakku holding these events annually in Agna Qel'a, and the cost of participation was three hundred yuan. A few years ago, Katara had even started to save from her pocket money towards this opportunity to be crushed by grandmaster Pakku, but once she had learned what kind of man Pakku Karetak actually was, she had decided to put her money towards better use.

However, now they were all given an opportunity to take part in something much more valuable and unique, a chance to learn from "Guru" Pathik himself. Nobody had witnessed him play for more than a decade, although Katara was sure that he probably had multiple long-distance games running with Iroh and Gyatso, just like she did with Yue.

"I also have to tell you that there is an additional prize to be won," Iroh spoke up, cutting through the excited chatting of the teenagers. "My friend will evaluate your performance during this demonstration. The player that impresses him the most will receive an opportunity to spend an afternoon with me and "Guru" Pathik for a private lesson. I wish you all the best of luck," Iroh finished. Katara noticed the way he gave his nephew an encouraging nod, no doubt willing Zuko to leave a positive impression on "Guru" Pathik. Katara instantly became even more determined not to let this chance slip by her. This was a unique, once in a lifetime opportunity. She needed to secure it for herself.

"Oh my goodness," Katara turned to watch Yue practically bouncing up and down next to her. "Is this really happening, Kat?"

"I know! I can't believe it!" Katara nodded in return. "I hope he chooses one of us, Yue."

"Agreed," Yue smiled at her. "Good luck, sweetheart," she added, the two girls joining in a quick hug as the simultaneous display began.

About half an hour later, Katara already found herself developing great fondness for the old "Guru". He seemed so full of smiles, kind and respectful towards all the kids, and there was genuine warmth in his eyes, mixed with some amusement which he clearly took from confounding these highly talented teenagers at their Pai Sho boards. After about a dozen or so moves, Katara had decided that her wizened wizard comparison was very apt indeed. The move selection by the old "Guru" was making Katara scratch her head in confusion as she was clearly failing to predict the intentions of her opponent.

Still, even though Katara felt hopelessly outmatched, the others were faring far worse. One by one, the younger kids at the camp had to admit their defeat at the hands of "Guru" Pathik. From Katara's acquaintances, Meng folded very quickly, failing to reach twenty moves. Ghashiun, Teo and Kori followed shortly after. As Katara had expected, the ones to last the longest would be her, Yue, Aang, Toph, Zuko and Haru.

Katara had no idea how the others were coping, but from the tense looks on all of their faces it seemed that her friends were all struggling. The old master expertly created such complications on the Pai Sho board that trying to follow all the potential treads drove Katara crazy. It seemed as if all of her friends were similarly confounded. How "Guru" Pathik was able to navigate through such complications in six concurrent games, Katara had no idea. All she knew that her only hope lay in simplifying the game as much as possible, but it was very hard to accomplish when her opponent skillfully evaded all of her attempts to exchange tiles.

Toph was next to bow out with a frustrated groan, surprisingly followed by Haru, whom Katara had fancied as a favorite to last the longest, either him or Zuko. Katara feared that she might be the next to suffer defeat, but then she spied a clever opportunity to use her Wheel tile and create a fork to threaten her opponents flower tiles. This wasn't a decisive move on Katara's part, because Pathik had the opportunity to counter with a fork of his own, and he spotted it easily enough. Still, this allowed Katara to force an exchange of several tiles, and it simplified the situation on the board, taking some pressure off of her. While Katara's position improved, Aang ended up surrendering, followed in defeat by Yue.

This left only Katara and Zuko opposing Pathik. Now that the "Guru" only had two opponents to focus on, Katara and Zuko immediately faced hard times. Katara tried to resist bravely, attempting several snares to trip up her opponent, but the "Guru" seemed to see everything. Katara desperately hoped that she could at least outlast Zuko, but it was not to be. Pathik's Orchid quickly cleared the path towards him forming a harmony ring and the game was over. Zuko lasted four moves more than she did before he too was forced to acknowledge the inevitable.

"Guru" Pathik rose to address the group of excited teenagers. "I am very impressed by this new crop of talented Pai Sho players," the old man spoke with a kind smile. "Iroh and I will take a few minutes to discuss which one of you acquitted themselves the best."

As Iroh and Pathik withdrew, all the kids immediately broke into excited speculation. Almost everyone seemed to believe that Zuko would be chosen because he had lasted the longest against Pathik. Katara and her closest circle of friends did not necessarily agree with that opinion. "Ugh, I know I won't be chosen and for a good reason. I made too many mistakes, I'm so angry with myself right now," Toph grumbled. "The rest of you played much better games, but I think Zuko is celebrating prematurely."

Zuko overheard her words, coming over to the small group of four. "What are you talking about, Beifong?" he frowned. "I lasted the longest. That means I'm the best from this lot."

"Just because you can last a little longer than most doesn't make it good," Yue shot back. Some of the older kids who understood the double entendre broke out in hearty laughter, making Zuko go red in the face.

"You should really watch your mouth, Taqqiq," Zuko threatened Yue.

"Or what, you're going to try something?" Yue refused to back down, hands on her hips. Katara stood next to her, glaring at Zuko. "Everyone saw that Katara played a much better game. If they pick you, Zuko, it'll only be because your uncle put in a word on your behalf."

Zuko's healthy eye twitched dangerously as some of the other kids were openly sniggering behind his back. Fortunately, the tense standoff was broken when Iroh and Pathik reappeared in the garden, both of them smiling in satisfaction as they approached the tense crowd of teenagers, swelling with anticipation.

"After some lively debate with my good friend Iroh, we have a decision for you," the bushy bearded champion of old spoke up. "As I said before, I am very impressed by the overall level of play by this new crop of players. Some of you impressed me a little more than the others. I would like to make a special note of the young Water Tribe lady with the white hair, and the young Air Nation lad. You have the potential to achieve great things." Everyone took a moment to applaud Aang and Yue, the two of them blushing from the attention.

"And then we come to the two young players who impressed me the most," Pathik continued. "Zuko, was that right?" He asked, looking at Iroh's nephew. Zuko nodded, a little nervously. "You did extremely well, Zuko. And lastly, the young lady in the blue dress over there," Pathik smiled as Iroh leaned in to whisper in his ear. "Katara, yes, excellent," he nodded to himself.

"Zuko, you played a very good game today," Pathik said, turning back to Zuko. "It was tactically sound and had very few weaknesses. I am sure it will take you far in your career as a professional player. However… your style of play is also a little dogmatic. I was more impressed by the creativity and adaptability of young Katara's game. For this reason, I choose her as the victor of this little contest."

Everyone aside from the shocked and outraged Zuko broke out in applause for Katara as she just stood there, flabbergasted, unable to believe her good fortune. "Katara, after dinner, please take your notation book and join me and "Guru" Pathik in my study, please," Iroh spoke kindly, even though privately he probably had hoped that Zuko would be chosen.

Katara could only stand there and nod numbly. This was proving to be an afternoon she would remember for the rest of her life.

The couple of weeks that her father and Zhao remained on Sozin's Island left Azula very tense and frustrated, even more so than usual, despite the fact that for once she was not under the scope of Ozai's attention. Besides, at this point, Azula was more concerned about Zhao. Ozai had sent him to test her Pai Sho progress on three separate occasions, and it hadn't been a pleasant experience. Zhao hadn't made any weird and inappropriate comments like the previous summer, but still, the way she occasionally caught him staring at her made Azula feel icky. Because of it, Azula had developed the habit to dress in a certain way when she knew that she would have to interact with Zhao. Her usual great sense of style was set aside for plain and unattractive jeans and oversized shirts or a baggy sweater. At least she had managed to acquit herself well in her sparring sessions with Zhao, well enough for Zhao to report favorably back to her father, and Ozai had made no more requests for further sparring.

Azula had also made sure to warn Zirin about Zhao, telling the other girl to avoid her father's right hand man as much as possible. Zirin managed to successfully wriggle out of the tasks that could have put her at risk of interacting with Zhao, and when Ozai and Zhao left a few days ago to return to Caldera City, both girls let out big sighs of relief. At this point, Azula was done pretending that she was still angry with Zirin. She knew that there would be precious few opportunities to spend time with the other girl. Ozai would return in less than a week, and with so much to do at the estate, Zirin hardly ever got more than a couple of hours off during the day. And even then, making good use of Zirin's free time was difficult because they always had to worry about the prying eyes of the others. The other servants would be only too happy to earn some brownie points with Ozai by reporting that his daughter was spending an inordinate amount of time entertaining this new servant girl.

The best way to not get spotted was to spend time away from the estate. Azula loved spending time at the stables, and fortunately, it turned out that Zirin also loved horses, albeit not as much as Azula. Stables became something of a safe haven for them, a place where they met almost daily. Occasionally, Azula dared to invite Zirin to come with her for a ride, and it seemed to be safe enough, especially if they stuck to the side of the island which had been left a little wild and underdeveloped. Azula always had to smile when she recalled Zirin's first time atop of Goldflake, the older girl freaking out a little having never ridden a horse before. Still, Zirin had bonded with Goldflake quite quickly and had since become very comfortable atop of a horse. To Azula, this was yet another sign that Zirin truly was repentant for what she had done, and that she could trust the other girl not to betray her again. Someone who got along so well with her beloved horses couldn't be all bad.

"Hey there," Azula almost jumped at the sultry sound of Zirin's voice close to her ear. She had allowed herself to become so distracted by brushing Innocence's mane, feeding her sugar cubes while thinking about Zirin, that she had failed to spot the other girl's arrival at the stables.

"Oh… hey," Azula replied, turning to face Zirin. The older girl was wearing her trademark torn jeans and a checkered flannel shirt, a passable outfit for horse riding.

"Someone's being miles away," Zirin grinned at her. Azula hated how the gesture made it all but impossible for her not to smile back.

"I guess," Azula shrugged. Zirin's mere presence made it so hard for her to act casual and indifferent. "Shall we go for a ride? I was thinking that maybe I should take Goldflake today. I miss her."

"No, no, I should keep Goldflake," Zirin chuckled. "You should stick with Innocence. For reasons we are both well aware of." Azula blushed darkly at that comment. "Gods, that blush makes you look so hot," Zirin breathed out heatedly.

"Shut up, idiot," Azula snapped in embarrassment.

"I'm never shutting up about how hot you are," Zirin grinned. She stepped closer to Azula, hooking her fingers in the younger girl's belt and lightly tugging on it to pull Azula towards her. As Azula was forced to move towards the other girl, Zirin attempted to catch Azula's lips against hers, but at the very last moment, Azula turned away sharply, leaving Zirin's lips to brush awkwardly against the side of her cheek. "Ouch…" Zirin commented, releasing her hold on Azula's belt.

"You are aware that we can never have any sort of… relationship, right?" Azula asked, her voice hoarse.

"A relationship?" Zirin spoke softly. "That's a big leap, considering you haven't actually said aloud that you forgive me."

"Of course I forgive you, stupid," Azula snapped. "I forgave you some time ago."

"Well, that would have been nice to know," Zirin rolled her eyes. "Thank you, though. Anyway, a relationship? Yeah, I kinda figured that it wouldn't be possible, not with your father ruling over every aspect of your life."

"I might have more say once I turn eighteen, though my father is likely to still hold my inheritance as leverage to ensure that I always do what he wants," Azula sighed. "But that is only to be expected. I shouldn't expect to inherit his riches if I end up disappointing him."

"Oookaaaay," Zirin stated dubiously.

"Eh, you wouldn't understand," Azula shrugged. "Different social strata. Besides, it'll be a long time before I turn eighteen. I'm going to turn only sixteen in three weeks."

"Are you still going to be here then?" Zirin asked. Azula nodded stiffly. "Oh, we should do something wild to celebrate."

"Hah, fat chance of that," Azula laughed, but it rang hollow. "My father will be here, along with a host of boring dignitaries who mean nothing to me. They will supposedly come to greet me and bring me expensive gifts, but in reality they will be here only to curry favors with my father. Trust me, if I had the chance to choose with whom to spend my birthday, it would be you, Zirin."

"Oh," Zirin looked touched by her words. "Maybe I can think of some kind of an early birthday present, then?"

"That depends on what you have in mind," Azula replied guardedly.

"I might have some ideas," Zirin smiled, moving closer again. This time Azula did not turn away when the older girl moved in to kiss her, eagerly drinking from Zirin's tender lips.

Over the past few days, their growing intimacy had escalated. Horse riding by now involved stops of at least a quarter of an hour, rolling around in some secluded meadow away from the prying eyes of others, trading passionate kisses with fiery vigor. There was a part of Azula that was scared to explore this growing closeness, afraid that it might end up the same way as it did with Ty Lee. But at the same time, Azula was so thirsty to experience it with someone, and she also knew that for her opportunities would always remain scarce under her father's watchful gaze.

"I might be interested in hearing more about some of those ideas," Azula admitted once Zirin had stopped kissing her.

"It might involve you leaving your window open when you retire for the night," Zirin whispered. "And some impressive wall scaling on my part."

Azula shuddered briefly, both from uncertainty and anticipation. "I… I'm not sure I'm ready," she managed.

"You'll need to make that decision soon," Zirin spoke softly. "Azula, I know that we can never have an actual relationship. But I would still love to give you what I can in these brief snippets of time together. I can sense that you both want and need this. And even if we can't be together, I would love to be your first, babe."

Zirin's earnest words frightened Azula. Her father would surely kill them both if he was to discover what Zirin was proposing. Azula's self-preservation instincts should have kicked in by now to stop her from this obviously terrible idea, and yet they hadn't. She didn't know whether she loved Zirin. She probably didn't. The thought that they couldn't be together didn't hurt as much as it probably should have if she would have been earnestly in love. But she still wanted to experience what Zirin offered. Zirin was stupidly attractive, she was older and more experienced… she seemed to be exactly what Azula needed at this moment of time.

"Let's go for that ride, shall we?" Azula instead replied, pulling away. She gave Zirin a longing, meaningful stare. "We'll take a longer than usual break at the meadows. Maybe you can find some more persuasive arguments to convince me that I'm ready for what you propose."

Zirin's only reply was a promising smile on her lips.

When an overawed Katara had entered Iroh's study to join him and "Guru" Pathik, she had thought that the old master would spend a half an hour at most on giving her some general advice. She couldn't have been further from the truth. The clock on the wall informed her that it was now a quarter past eight in the evening and the three of them had been frozen at the Pai Sho board for over four hours straight, about to miss their supper.

Pathik had started by taking her notation book and going over it, commenting on the way she kept her notations and the remarks she had made during the analysis of her games. The old master was full of praise for her detail-orientated and studious approach. He had then asked her to pick out three of her favorite games for them to go over together. Katara made the selection from her games at the finals of the past spring, a beautiful victory over Hahn Adjuk, and tightly contested losses to Azula Nakamura and Ruon-Jian Ogawa. Again, her choices drew praise from both grandmasters, remarking that she was not overcome with hubris and was not using this as an opportunity to show off. Pathik's words of 'victory is empty, there are lessons in defeat', were something that Katara knew would stay with her for a long time after.

Curiously, it was Katara's loss to Azula that seemed to elicit the most interest in the old master. After they had spent several hours examining the lengthy contest of two stubborn wills, "Guru" Pathik found himself with plenty to say. "If you had not shown me this game of yours, child, I would have told you that your weakness is your reliance on the defensive aspect of your game. I would have advised you to diversify your style to make it more viable at a professional level," Pathik said. "However, this one game alone already reveals a remarkable range of tools at your disposal, all at a very tender age. I am… beyond impressed. Iroh, do you think you could have bested this young lady when you were a strapping young lad of fifteen summers?"

"I seriously doubt that," Iroh laughed, shaking his head. "Young people these days are just too good if you ask me."

"You certainly have a very rare talent, Katara," Pathik told her. "But you must never become complacent. Talent alone makes up for no more than one third of what you will achieve as a professional player. If you stop nurturing your talent, others may overtake you purely with hard work. That's what happened to me, you know?"

"Really?" Katara gasped. Iroh also gave his old friend a curious look. It seemed that this was a story he wasn't familiar with.

"There isn't much to tell, it's not some dramatic story if you were hoping for one," Pathik chuckled. "My string of successes became my downfall. When you are already winning everything, how do you motivate yourself to continue putting in all that grueling training? I failed to motivate myself, and began to suffer defeat after defeat. And instead of making the hard choice to immerse myself in training and preparation, I made the easy choice to retire."

"I would never judge you, old friend," Iroh respectfully bowed his head. "The amount of work necessary to remain at the top can be daunting. There is a reason why I have not competed on a professional level for more than ten years. It is very draining."

"But it can also be so very satisfying, especially when you create a work of art such as this," Pathik smiled, pointing at the notations of Katara's game with Azula. "Of course, it takes two to create something so memorable. You are a generational talent, young lady, but so is your opponent in this game. Iroh, I could not help but notice that you share last name with this girl, Azula."

"Yes," Iroh nodded. "Azula is my niece… estranged niece. She is firmly under her father's thumb."

"Ah yes, you have told me of your family situation," Pathik nodded. "It is regrettable. I would have liked to study her games as well."

"Actually, my remarks to those notations come from analyzing this game together with Azula," Katara smiled at the fond memory. "We spent time studying Pai Sho together this spring. We even became tentative friends."

Iroh looked very surprised, but also pleased. "Katara, I am very thankful that you are making the effort to befriend Azula. As I understand, she is not easy to get along with," he said gratefully. "I fear greatly for her. My concern is that living with Ozai could destroy her very humanity."

"I didn't find it very hard to get along with her," Katara shrugged. "Please don't be offended, Master Iroh, but I actually find interacting with Zuko a lot more challenging than speaking with Azula."

Iroh gave a hearty laugh at that. "Oh, you're not telling me something I don't already know, Katara. That boy still has a long way to go before he understands that he doesn't have to prove himself to the entire world." Iroh shook his head. "Spirits, would you look at the hour? Young lady, we have taken up far too much of your time."

"Indeed," "Guru" Pathik nodded with a smile. "Time just flies when you sit down at the board, doesn't it? I hope you have learned something useful from these two old men, Katara."

"Of course! I will not squander any of this knowledge, I promise," Katara said, rising from her seat and bowing to the two older men. "Thank you so much for everything," she uttered breathlessly, departing with a proud and accomplished smile on her face.

It seemed that the other kids had already scattered after their supper, but Katara felt too happy and elated to even think about food. She was eager to find Yue and the others and tell them everything she had learned from the "Guru". Figuring that the others would probably be sitting out in the garden, Katara raced out of the estate and ran straight into Zuko Nakamura, walking up the stairs together with his girlfriend.

"Watch it!" Zuko glared at Katara after she had managed to avoid collision at the very last moment. "So, I guess you're done wasting the grandmaster's time?"

"What are you talking about?" Katara frowned at him. "Oh, I get it. You're so jealous you weren't the one picked for a private lesson."

"I should have been the one picked!" Zuko exclaimed angrily. "I'm better than you! Every time we have played, I have utterly destroyed you!"

"And despite that, "Guru" Pathik says that I have greater potential than you do," Katara shot back, refusing to be intimidated. "Or are you going to say that you know better than Master Pathik?"

For a moment, Zuko seemed lost for words, prompting his girlfriend to interfere and stand up for her boyfriend. "Don't listen to this Northern savage, Zuko, what does she know?" Jin glared angrily at Katara. "Why don't you crawl into some hole in the ice and make out with a seal or something?"

"And why don't you go and get started on that pile of dirty dishes in the kitchen?" After Katara had stood up to Zuko, she certainly wasn't going to bow down to Jin. "I thought you were being paid to help, not to bully the participants."

"Mouthy little bitch, isn't she? I'll show you!" Jin snarled. She stuck out her leg and then pushed Katara, making her trip over Jin's outstretched leg. Once again, Katara ended up with her back on the ground. "There, let that be a less-" Jin's gloating was suddenly interrupted by something hitting both her and Zuko, some sort of liquid dumped all over them from the upper floor of the estate.

"Ugh, what is this?" Zuko growled angrily. "Agni, it smells awful!"

"Damn it, that's fish sauce!" Jin cried out. "Someone threw it on us from the second floor balcony!"

"Let's get them!" Zuko exclaimed and together with Jin they ran off, forgetting all about Katara.

The Water Tribe girl had just about finished dusting herself off, when someone ran up to her, breathing hard from exhaustion. "Come on, Kat, let's go!" it was Yue, grabbing her hand and pulling her along. The two of them dashed around the front of the estate and ran down the little path running around the mansion towards the back.

"Did you just dump fish sauce all over Zuko and his girlfriend?" Katara managed, breathing too hard to laugh.

"Yes," Yue admitted between gulps of air. "They're both so mad! And stinky!"

"We better hide, Yue," Katara suggested. "They looked ready to beat us up."

"Hiding is the plan, Kat," Yue giggled, pulling Katara down the path that led to the collection of utility buildings behind the main estate. "In here," she whispered, the two of them running into the little shed where Iroh stored rows of birch firewood for the sauna. There was very little room in the shed and the two of them had to squeeze very tightly as they waited for any signs of Zuko and Jin searching for them.

"Maybe you shouldn't have done it, Yue," Katara suggested, struggling not to laugh when she thought of the surprised looks on Zuko and Jin's faces. "Although it was kind of awesome!"

"Nobody bullies my main babe and gets away with it, I thought you knew that," Yue replied with mirth in her voice. "Shush!" she suddenly hushed Katara. "I hear them coming!"

The two girls froze, keeping silent as mice as they listened to Zuko and Jin speaking in angry voices outside. Having checked some of the other buildings, the sauna and the tool shed, Zuko and Jin seemed to grow bored looking for them and headed back towards the estate. As soon as they were gone, the two Water Tribe troublemakers burst into relieved laughter, tears pouring down their cheeks from laughing so hard.

"You should have seen-"

"I did see! The looks on their faces-"

"That was awesome. You were awesome-"

"And I'd do it again-"

And then it happened. Katara later would have no recollection of how exactly they went from laughing themselves to tears to the next moment being lip-locked in the tight, confined space of the firewood shed. For the next couple of minutes, their lips crashed together with the kind of primal urgency that felt as if it had been restrained for years. Bits of uneven and sharp logs were digging in their backs as they staggered around the cramped shed, but neither of them seemed to notice the discomfort. Katara's hands were firmly entangled in Yue's flowing locks, trying to pull her ever tighter against herself, Yue repaying her in kind. Katara had absolutely no clue about the time that had passed during the almost savage kiss, but it felt like a lot. She actually felt sore from kissing Yue. Maybe Jin was right and they really were Northern savages.

Then they both finally opened their eyes at the exact same moment, and the reality of what had just happened hit them both like a truckload of firewood.

"Oh, no…" Katara whimpered. "No, no, no…"

"Shit!" Yue cursed, looking equally distraught. "This is bad…"

Next chapter: We'll check in with Katara and Azula in the fall, and we'll look back at the fallout of their summer dalliances.

Chapter Text

Qualifying for her second U18 championship final was proving a more relaxed affair for Azula when compared to the drama of the previous year's event. The defending U18 world junior champion Haru Tamang had moved on to the next age bracket and there would be nobody defending their title next year in Ba Sing Se. This meant that the Fire Nation had its normal quota of four qualification berths, and Azula, Chan and Ruon-Jian were considered locks to qualify. The last spot was expected to be contested between On Ji Takeda and Kei Lo, with some of the other kids perhaps having an outside chance. As the tournament progressed, the events largely unfolded as predicted. Azula needed only seven rounds to secure her qualification early, scoring only wins, including victories against both Chan and Ruon-Jian. She actually found herself bored by the lack of any serious challenges, missing the excitement of last year's tournament.

Of course, last year she had competed alongside Zirin, but the older girl had turned eighteen and graduated to the next level of play. In fact, Zirin was currently busy trying to qualify for the U21 World Championship, battling against Azula's brother Zuko among others. Azula occasionally checked the sports gazette for updates from the other qualifying tournaments all over the world. It seemed that Zirin was having a tough time in her first year at the next bracket.

Azula occasionally contemplated calling Zirin, but she always ended up dismissing the idea. The end of the summer had been perfect. They had shared kisses, intimate confessions, and towards the very end of summer holiday, they had shared their very bodies with each other. Azula was happy to have it end this way, on a high note. What they had shared had been amazing, but reaching out to Zirin now would only sour it. They could talk, but it would be laced with the bitterness of knowing that a relationship would not be possible. Ozai would never approve of Zirin's company for his daughter. They could not even pretend to be friends. Ozai had a photographic memory when it came to faces and Zirin's appearance was very memorable. Ozai would immediately recognize her as the servant girl from Sozin's Island. This path had reached a dead end, and Azula had accepted the inevitable.

Five weeks ago, Ozai had successfully finished the fourth time defense of his title of Pai Sho world champion, securing it for two more years. It had been a hugely exhausting effort, as evidenced by how her father still hadn't traveled since returning home from the tournament. The physical and mental toll her father had endured seemed particularly heavy this year, and grandmaster Bumi Dhawan had pushed Ozai all the way, until the penultimate round of play. In the first few weeks after the tournament, Ozai had been particularly exhausted and quick to anger. It hadn't translated into any actual beatings for Azula, but she had been berated and shouted at plenty of times, constantly having to walk on eggshells around her father so as not to set him off again. Fortunately, lately Ozai had been in a better mood, planning to spend the following week on Sozin's Island before traveling to check up on his Kyoshi Island properties.

Azula had celebrated her sixteenth birthday at the end of the summer. The official party attended by her father's stiff and snooty upper class friends had been a boring and drab affair, and not even the amazing display of fireworks arranged by Ozai had moved her. Sure, some of the gifts had been impressive, but there was only one thing Azula truly appreciated, her student's driving license. Until her sixteenth birthday, Azula always had to ask the driver to take her wherever she wished to go. Having her own car and a driver's license offered her the kind of newfound freedom that she had been desperately longing for. She loved how envious the sight of her driving the red Alpha Romeo Spider made her peers, whether she took the car to Li and Lo's boarding school, or to the hotel hosting the Pai Sho qualifiers. Even better, after Azula was done with her game or with her studies, she could get into her car and there was nobody to tell her that she was supposed to drive right back to the estate. She could literally pick any direction and drive where she pleased, with no particular goal or purpose in mind, just to enjoy this rare moment of freedom.

Having finished her match of Round 8, delivering a humiliating defeat to the unfortunate Kei Lo, Azula as per usual didn't stick around to watch her competition play. She was more than a point ahead of the closest follower and had already secured the tournament win. Deftly ignoring all those vying for her attention and sparing not a second glance at the spectators pleading with her to sign their Pai Sho boards (or other, more dubious surfaces), Azula headed straight for the elevator, pressing a button to bring her down to the car park at the hotel's basement.

Emerging in the car park, Azula headed straight for her beloved red Spider. As she rounded a pillar, closing in on where she had parked the car, Azula suddenly noticed someone standing next to her car. No, not next to the car, this stranger had the audacity to lean in against her precious car! Azula felt anger starting to boil in her veins, but it faded as she came up to the stranger and realized just who they were, a certain acerbic and sullen past friend of hers.

"Mai?" Azula exclaimed in surprise. Indeed, the tall girl in the black pantsuit was none other than her old friend Mai, her eyes shielded by extravagant heart-shaped sunglasses. "What are you doing here? I thought you were in the Fire Fountain City! Did you come to watch your boyfriend play?" Azula peppered her with questions.

Mai pulled the sunglasses down to the tip of her nose and peered at Azula over the frame of the glasses. "I sort of invited myself to come and watch Ruon play," Mai replied. "I became curious why he hadn't invited me in the first place. Well, now I know." Azula frowned, not sure what Mai was getting at. "Turns out he already has a new girlfriend… while stringing me along in the Fire Fountain City, trying to convince me that we can make this long-distance relationship work. Asshole."

"I am so not surprised," Azula nodded. "Do you want my help getting back at him?"

"No, no, it's already taken care of," Mai smirked. "I paid good money to a pilot of one of those small single-motor planes who spend entire days towing advertising banners up in the air. Except this banner is the opposite of advertising because it describes very unflattering, but completely true facts about Ruon-Jian's private parts."

Azula felt greatly impressed by Mai's ingenuity. "I'm just glad you didn't do something so nasty when you were pissed off at me," she remarked.

"Are you kidding? I'm not suicidal. Your father would have put a hit on me," Mai replied.

"Oh. Yes, he probably would," Azula agreed quickly. "Hmm, are they flying that banner today?" Mai nodded. "I want to see it. And I know just the perfect place from which to watch that banner plane flying around." Azula pointed at the car, sensing an opportunity to really impress Mai. Somehow, she still found it important to know that Mai respected her. "Want to join me for a little drive outside the city?" Azula asked hopefully.

"Honestly?" Mai's eyebrows rose. "Yeah, I was kinda hoping we could hang out. It's been a while, again."

"Yes, I wish you were still living in Caldera," Azula sighed, unlocking the doors of the Spider, getting in and then opening the doors on the passenger side to allow Mai to climb in. She then hit the button to retract the roadster's roof. "You don't mind, do you?" she asked Mai. October was still quite warm in the Fire Nation, although it could get very wet in the rainy season. It wouldn't be until late November when the temperatures would begin to drop more noticeably.

"To miss the sensation of having wind in my hair?" Mai smirked. "Are you kidding? Roof down all the way."

"I knew you'd understand," Azula nodded. She reached into the glove compartment to grab her own sunglasses before starting the engine and carefully navigating the tight spaces in the car park. As much as she wanted to impress Mai with her driving, she definitely didn't want to do so at the expense of damaging her precious car. For the next quarter of an hour, Azula drove steady and carefully, until they finally pulled out of the heavy traffic of Caldera City downtown and found themselves speeding through the suburbs. When it came to observing the speed limit, Azula only concerned herself with it in the heart of Caldera City. Besides, even if she got caught (which hadn't happened yet), would any of the cops actually dare to throw a book her? She would just name drop and watch them retreat apologetically, tails tucked between their piggy legs.

"Maybe it's time you told me where we're going," Mai finally broke the silence to ask.

"Up the mountain," Azula replied, making a sharp right turn, taking the road that snaked up the slopes of the massive dormant volcano, overlooking the capital below. This was one of Azula's favorite routes to hit. It was a little dangerous, especially since she couldn't stop herself from going over the speed limit, but she enjoyed the challenge and the views were to (not literally) die for. By now, Azula knew the route so well that she could probably have managed it while wearing a blindfold. The weather was good today, there was no fog and the road was completely dry. She felt perfectly confident pushing the gas pedal to a steady sixty-five in a forty mile speed limit zone.

Azula had to give it to Mai, the older girl made absolutely no fuss about her speeding. Mai seemed to absolutely love this, the way the wind played with her strands of hair, and a rare smile had even appeared on the other girl's lips. "Are we going all the way up to the top?" Mai cried.

"No!" Azula replied, raising her voice. The wind was starting to gain noticeably in strength the further up the mountain they went. She took her feet off the gas a little bit, dropping to just below sixty. "We're going about two thirds up the mountain. You know the place where the cable cars go up to?" Mai nodded at her. "There's a really amazing little café up there. I thought we could stop there, get some food and laugh ourselves silly at the banner mocking Ruon."

"Sounds perfect," Mai replied, looking pleased. "I'm already glad we decided to hang out. This has been… really good."

"Glad to hear it," Azula replied. The happiness in her chest from Mai's words felt almost as good as the validation she craved to receive from her father. Azula didn't quite understand why she felt this way. She did not equate Mai with Ozai in any way. But she still saw Mai as the older and more experienced girl she wanted to impress. In some ways, she still looked up to Mai.

The small car park at the end of the cable car route was almost empty as Azula's Spider pulled into it. Unsurprisingly, for it was early lunchtime on a workday, outside of the normal tourist season. Some of the tables at the cafeteria were actually occupied, justifying it still being open for business so late in the season. The hiking trails surrounding the slopes of the volcano were hugely popular and attracted hikers from all over the Fire Nation. This particular little spot made for a very convenient and attractive base from which to head out and explore the mountain.

Having left Mai sitting at a table out on the terrace, Azula went up to the counter and ordered a pair of shrimp cocktails and espressos, paying for both of them. Azula then returned to sit down with Mai to wait for the order to be delivered. Mai immediately pointed towards the sky above the capital, struggling not to burst into laughter. Azula let out an abrupt chortle as she spotted the large and clearly visible banner, decrying Ruon-Jian's lack of… advantage.

"Simply beautiful," Azula remarked at the view.

"Oh yes," Mai nodded in agreement. She glanced at Azula, curiosity behind her dark sunglasses. "You come here often?"

"At least once a week, sometimes twice," Azula nodded. "The view is gorgeous." The city below seemed no larger than a busy anthill. Up here, Azula could truly distance herself from her life down there, with the rest of the ants. She hadn't even known she could feel so free and liberated. It was both scary and intoxicating at once. Sometimes she would even sit on the crumbling old stone wall surrounding the car park, swinging her legs over the drop of at least three hundred yards, ignoring the warnings shouted at her by the employees of the cafeteria. When she was up here, all her worldly concerns suddenly seemed so small and distant, and she couldn't get enough of the feeling.

"It really is," Mai turned her head to regard the view, then returning her attention to Azula again. "If I may make an observation? You seem a lot less bitchy lately."

Azula rolled her eyes at the comment. "I'm sure I have no idea what you mean. If they deliver us less than perfect shrimp cocktails, you'll see just how bitchy I can be," she replied. Mai was right, though, and she knew it. Azula had felt happier as of late. Her relationship with Ozai was still tense, but in a different way than before. Physical abuse hadn't been a part of their relationship for more than a year. Verbally, Ozai still loved to tear into her now and then, just to make sure that she was reminded of her proper place in the pecking order. Over the past six months, however, Ozai had paid her less attention than before. Azula had mixed feelings about that. While fearing some aspects of her father's attention, Azula still craved the validation.

Fortunately, she had allowed other people to step into her life to fill that void. Katara Enuaraq had reminded her about the benefits of having a friend. And Zirin… well, Zirin had filled an entirely different void, but no less important one. But Katara and Zirin weren't permanent parts of her life, nor could they ever become that for her. Mai was here now, but she would soon leave to go home to the Fire Fountain City. I really wish she wouldn't have to go. I could really do with a friend right now. The thoughts swam through Azula's head, but she would never voice them. She thought herself weak for suddenly needing someone in her life so badly.

Silence fell over the two of them, but it was a comforting, companionable one, interrupted only by the waitress delivering their orders. "Oh, this is really good," Mai remarked, having savored her shrimp cocktail.

"It really is," Azula nodded. "It's quite astounding level of quality for such a small café at the ass-end of nowhere."

"So," Mai spoke up again after they had been enjoying their cocktails for a while. "You're going to ask me that which you so obviously want to know?"

"And what is that?" Azula replied, sipping her espresso. She didn't really need to ask, of course. Mai was reading her like an open book, and Azula hated it.

"You want to know about Ty Lee," Mai said. Azula didn't reply. Obviously, she wanted to know about Ty Lee. She just didn't want to seem desperate by asking. "I'm sorry, but I have bad news, Azula." Azula felt her hand tremble, almost making her spill the coffee. She quickly set the cup back on the table. "My last two letters were returned unopened."

"Do you know why?" Azula asked. She sounded almost hysterically nervous.

"I had a suspicion," Mai replied. "I dug around in the yellow pages and found a phone number of a small veterinarian clinic nearby. I called them and begged for someone to find out about the Watanabes. They called me back the next day. Azula, Ty Lee's family were evicted because they couldn't pay their rent."

"Did they… tell you what happened with them? Where they went?" Azula asked, shuddering at the sensation of cold dread spreading through her.

"No idea. They've disappeared off the face of the Earth," Mai replied.

Azula did not reply. She was too busy fighting off the tight ball of emotions in her chest and the welling of tears in her eyes, threatening to burst. She was glad for her shades, but holding the dam from bursting still proved impossible. Her cheeks were soon wet with a flood of tears as her shoulders shook with sobs.

"Ah… shit," Mai exclaimed, having noticed her breakdown. The older girl seemed indecisive whether to run around the table to hug Azula or not. She was still as awkward and awful at offering emotional support as Azula had always been.

"D-don't worry… I'll get a grip. Any m-moment now," Azula managed. It took her a while, but eventually she managed to calm herself, wiping her cheeks clean.

"Now I regret telling you," Mai sighed. "Sorry."

"No, I needed to know," Azula replied quietly. "It's something I need to always be aware of."

Mai looked a little confused. "I'm sorry, but I'm not sure what you meant by that."

Azula removed her sunglasses before replying. The amount of pain in her amber-hued eyes seemed to startle Mai. "I must always remain aware of the fact that my father and I are capable of literally destroying lives of those that I ever allow to become close to me," Azula said. "I can't let anyone else suffer the way Ty Lee and her family has suffered," she added with absolute determination.

For the first time in Katara's life, she was finally allowed to attend a tournament, albeit just the Water Tribe qualifiers in Agna Qel'a, on her own, without Sokka's escort. The fact that Katara had turned sixteen a month ago had been a more powerful argument than she felt it deserved to be. It wasn't as if a simple number that was her age somehow ensured that suddenly she was mature enough not to require Sokka's protection.

Sokka would have probably still ended up coming along, if it wasn't for Gran-Gran's cataract surgery. It had been performed three weeks ago and appeared to be successful, but their grandmother was still recovering and not allowed to perform any strenuous work around the house. With Hakoda out on the oil rig more often than not, Sokka had been forced to remain home with Gran-Gran and assist her with chores. Sokka had been unhappy but understanding about it. He had finally earned his driver's license and had been dreaming about taking himself and Katara to the capital with their dad's old car, thinking to somehow impress Yue by sitting behind the wheel. In the end, Sokka had been forced to stay at home and look after Kanna, while Katara took the bus to Agna Qel'a.

The fact that Katara was traveling alone opened another tantalizing opportunity. Since Sokka wasn't there, it suddenly became acceptable for Yue to invite her to stay at the Taqqiq family estate instead of some cheap hotel. Yue's father Arnook did not seem to mind her female friend staying at the estate, in fact, he was rather kind and welcoming towards Katara at all times. The relationship between Yue and her father, however, felt strange to Katara. She was used to just walking up to her father and spontaneously hugging him, or any other member of her household, even Sokka. Katara was something of a hug-monster, but she couldn't imagine ever not being that way. Hugs made everything feel just a little better. With Yue and Arnook, however… there was a strange, cold detachment lingering in the air. Arnook was polite but very reserved with his daughter, and there was definitely no hugs nor physical contact of any kind. It made Katara wonder about Yue's friendly and affectionate disposition. She certainly would not have learned that from her father.

The Taqqiq estate was a marvel to behold. It looked almost like the famous Winter Palace of Agna Qel'a, only on a smaller scale. Katara imagined that she would have been even more impressed if Azula Nakamura hadn't invited her for a visit to her Caldera City manor. And while the Taqqiq estate on its own was more spectacular than Azula's Caldera estate, the fact that the Nakamura's had several such holdings both in the Fire Nation and across the world was certainly overall far more impressive. Still, it didn't take away from the splendor of Yue's ancestral home. Now that Katara finally saw for herself the conditions in which Yue had been raised, she was even more impressed by how level-headed Yue had turned out growing up. At the same time, Katara didn't want to compare Yue with Azula, and think less of Azula because of it. Yue had grown up without a mother which couldn't have been easy, but her father, while standoffish, loved and cared for his daughter. He was not a monster who beat his own child.

Staying at the Taqqiq estate and hanging out with Yue all the time also helped them slowly work around the awkwardness which had developed as a result of that spontaneous summer kiss. In the immediate aftermath of it, they had both agreed on two things: Sokka could never find out (Katara was adamant about this) and it could never happen again between them (Katara really struggled to convince herself of this). Still, despite reaching an agreement, things had felt rather tense and awkward between them for the rest of the summer camp. Coming back home and resuming their lengthy chats on the phone had allowed them to slowly fall back into their old pattern of friendship. Soon enough, the awkwardness had faded and the pair had slipped back into their comfortable relationship of best friends who definitely hadn't passionately made out in the firewood shed the previous summer.

Katara had been worried that seeing Yue face to face again in the fall would prove difficult and would bring all the awkwardness back. In some ways it had done that. It definitely was not easy to look into Yue's face, to hear her talk, and to not dream of kissing those luscious lips of hers. Still, Katara somehow managed to push all these urges and desires aside. It was still amazing to spend these two weeks with her best friend at her splendorous family estate. Katara treasured her friendship with Yue too much to risk it by bringing up something that had no future anyway. That kiss in the summer had been shared with equal fervor by both parties, so Katara knew that on some level Yue desired her. If she was very insistent, perhaps she could have convinced Yue to give their affair a chance, but was it really worth it? If discovered, it would damage the relationship between Yue and her father. And could they both live with cheating on Katara's own brother, of all people? The answer was no. Katara couldn't follow through on it, not under these conditions. And that realization helped her accept the fact that Yue could be nothing more than her best friend. It would have to be enough.

As far as the qualification for the next year's finals, it had been a breeze with Hahn no longer eligible to play at the U18 level. Katara and Yue both had seven wins out of seven, and in the eighth round they had played out a pre-arranged draw between them, shaking on it after only a dozen of moves. The competition was so far behind them that there was no need to do any serious battle. They had already qualified ahead of the final round, and could have just as well spent their time packing their suitcases for the Ba Sing Se finals.

With the tournament ending the next day and Katara's bus ride home to Cape Kuruk two days away, the two girls were determined to make the most of their remaining time together. In the evening before the final round, the two of them were sitting on the bed in Yue's room, watching the reruns of old episodes of The Addams Family on the TV. Katara had been amused to discover that just like her Yue also had something of a crush on Morticia Addams.

"Wouldn't it be cool to just stay up all night and skip tomorrow's game altogether?" Yue sighed dreamily as the credits of another episode ran on the screen. "I just hate these formalities."

"Yes, it is a waste of time," Katara nodded. "But… if we wrap our games up quickly, we could go to the ice skating rink. And then have some more of that sticky chocolate cake they had in that nearby café."

"Haha, I wish I knew how to say no to you, Kat," Yue laughed. "But why would I, it's a perfect plan for tomorrow." She let out another sigh. "I'm going to miss you so much when you end up leaving. I haven't really had a friend staying with me at the estate like this, and it's been… just amazing."

"I know…" Katara sighed, the two sharing a brief friendly embrace. "But at least we have another amazing adventure to look forward to, right? That Ba Sing Se trip can't come soon enough."

"Oh yes, it'll be awesome," Yue nodded. "Maybe we'll run into Iroh. Oh, maybe we should pay him a surprise visit!"

"Haha, that's a great idea!" Katara agreed eagerly. "Hmm… Sokka will probably want to come along, though, even if he really doesn't have to at this point. But that's alright with me," she added quickly. After their summer indiscretion, they both clearly felt very guilty towards Sokka. Katara definitely would not begrudge Sokka spending time with Yue. Her guilt was stronger than her jealousy.

"We'll have a lot of fun, you'll see," Yue smiled at her. "It'll be the three of us and Toph. Oh, and Aang, should he qualify. Also, we can invite Azula to hang out with us, if you want to."

"I would like that, yes," Katara replied earnestly. "I just hope that she accepts. You can never know with Azula."

"That's definitely true," Yue nodded. She was going to say more, but an unexpected knock on the doors interrupted her. At Yue's invitation, one of the estate's servants entered the room. "Lady Yue, there's a long distance call from Ba Sing Se waiting for you in the downstairs hall. In fact, the young gentleman on the phone asked to speak with you both. He seemed a little overexcited."

"Long distance call from Ba Sing Se?" Yue blinked. "Oh my gosh! It must be Aang!" she realized.

"Yes, I believe that was the name of the young man," the servant girl added with a bow.

"Alright, let's not make Aang wait!" Yue exclaimed, getting up from the bed and dragging a surprised Katara with her as they ran downstairs as fast as they could. Yue quickly picked up the handset and pulled Katara closer so that she could listen and speak in, their heads touching as they both almost tried to speak at once. "Hey, is that you, Aang? It's me, Yue! Katara's here, with me!"

"Hi Yue, hi Katara!" Aang's voice came a little foggy on the other end of the line, but he was still clearly recognizable. "How are you two?"

"We're both great!" Yue continued to carry the conversation. "How did you know where to find us?"

"I called Katara at home and Sokka told me where she was staying, so I decided to call your estate. Hope that's okay, Yue!" Aang replied cheerfully.

"Of course, it's okay, Aang," Yue said. "How are things in Ba Sing Se?"

"Things are great! That's why I'm calling!" Aang sounded exhilarated on the phone. "I made it through! I qualified for the finals! We're going to all play together again come the spring!"

"That's amazing, Aang!" Katara exclaimed, briefly taking over from Yue. They were pressing very tightly against each other, but neither of them seemed to be aware of it. "We were hoping you'd make it! Who lost out?"

"Haha, Teo eliminated Joo Dee in the final round," Aang laughed. "Oh boy, you should have seen her face! I thought she was going to beat up the poor paraplegic kid, she looked ready to!"

"Nice! All the good guys made it through and Joo Dee failed, what could be better than that?" Yue cheered. By the good guys she meant the kids attending Uncle Iroh's camp, Teo Guyuk, Kori Morishita and Ghashiun al-Alawi.

"That's great news, Aang," Katara added. "Yue and I made it through as well."

"Of course, you did! I knew you would. And I also read the papers," he added with a chuckle. "Anyway, I should cut this short. This long distance call is costing me pretty penny."

"Don't worry about it, Aang. Just ask the hotel staff to make it a reverse charges call and forward it to me," Yue replied. "I'll gladly pay a few bob for such amazing news."

"Thanks Yue, you're the best! You both are!" Aang cheered. "I also thought it was worth sharing that we'll all get to play together again a year earlier than expected. Bye for now!"

"Bye, Aang!" both Katara and Yue spoke in unison. As Yue put the handset down, they both became aware of just how close they had been standing all this time. Katara blushed, about to reluctantly withdraw, but Yue suddenly pulled her close and into an impulsive, tight hug.

"Our spring adventure in Ba Sing Se will be something amazing, I just know it," Yue spoke softly, her cheeks lightly pinkish.

"You know what?" Katara smiled in return, heat warming her cheeks. "I have the exact same feeling."

Next chapter: Turn of another year. Let's check in on our cast of characters and see what everyone is doing, shall we?

Chapter Text

The start of a new year caught Zuko Nakamura in a foul mood as he stood in the kitchen of the four-room apartment he shared with his mother, waiting for his pot of tea to brew. It was a more luxurious Middle Ring apartment than he or Ursa could reasonably afford, if not for his uncle Iroh pitching in with the payments for rent. Ba Sing Se was no longer the segregated city it had been during the age of the Old Empire, but the denominations of the districts had carried over to the current day. Middle Ring meant middle class, and it made Zuko feel like an intruder. He barely contributed anything to the family finances, while Ursa struggled to make their ends meet. Avant-garde actors were not known for being major bread winners.

Upon turning eighteen and finishing high-school with above average marks, Zuko had faced a difficult choice the previous summer. There were two distinct paths to choose from for every junior Pai Sho player who sought to carve out a serious career behind the board. He could remain a junior player for three more years, until turning twenty-one, and continue to take part in the U21 World Championship. This was usually combined with full or part time studies in either one of the many local colleges or the University of Ba Sing Se (or the BSSU as it was known colloquially). The downside of this path was that it did not bring in a lot of money, in fact, it was a resource drain. By choosing this path, Zuko had become a financial burden for his mother and his uncle. Between the studies and Pai Sho practice, there was little time left for even a part time job at one of his uncle's teahouses, and it all left Zuko struggling with guilt.

He often had thoughts of abandoning his studies to obtain a law degree and choose the alternate path for his Pai Sho career. This choice was usually made by the more talented juniors coming from poorer backgrounds who could not afford a higher education degree. These players made the choice to turn pro at any point after celebrating their eighteenth birthday. It allowed them to take part in the many commercial Pai Sho tournaments held around the globe. However, playing in commercial tournaments automatically prohibited these players from competing for the U21 title. This was one of the reasons why the U21 title was not viewed as particularly prestigious, it was tainted by the sentiment that the winner hadn't actually competed against the most talented of his peers.

All in all, this second choice was a high risk, high reward game. Traveling costs and tournament participation fees were considerable, and you needed to consistently place high in the standings to turn a profit. This was why only the best juniors could reasonably expect to successfully pursue this path. Zuko was one of the best youth players at his age level, and his uncle had literally begged him not to pursue this risky path, promising to support him during the much safer path through the years of studies and competing with the non-professionals for the U21 title. Zuko had agreed, but five months later, he was already having doubts about his career path.

Zuko conceded that he probably wouldn't be feeling this guilty if a few weeks ago he hadn't discovered something that still left the unscarred side of his face burning with shame. One of his fellow freshmen at the BSSU had recognized his mother's face from a movie he had seen. However, it hadn't been the kind of movie that Zuko had thought his mother was taking part in. No, it was the kind of movie shown at very special showings at very special theatres, viewed almost exclusively by sleazy older men or horny male students. Yes, as much as Zuko hadn't wanted to believe it, a brief investigation of Ursa's book of phone contacts, confirmed that which Zuko had feared. Struggling to make ends meet as an avant-garde actress, his mother had made forays into adult film industry.

Zuko had been horrified by this discovery, and not just because of the stigma attached to being involved in something like that. From what little he had heard of adult film industry, it was brutal, dehumanizing business which mercilessly ground down all those unfortunate to get involved in it. He had seen the changes in his mother over the past few months, and they weren't changes for the better. Ever since the incident that had led to her divorce from Ozai, Ursa had struggled with depression and she had been on a steady diet of benzodiazepines for years. Ursa was on a downward spiral, all because she also felt guilty and would sacrifice anything just to help her son. Zuko wished that he could have an actual conversation about these issues with his mother, but… he just couldn't bring himself to it, and neither could she. Every time he meant to try, Ursa's reaction was to deflect and hear none of his concerns.

Afterwards, Zuko had done the only thing he could think of. He had told everything to Iroh. His uncle had promised to speak with his mother. That had been a couple of weeks ago. The only outcome that Zuko was aware of was that the monthly check from Iroh had become twice as large as before. This was probably done to dissuade Ursa from taking part in the adult movies, but Zuko wasn't sure it would solve the underlying issues. With Iroh's chain of teahouses spreading not only throughout Ba Sing Se, but the whole of the Earth Kingdom, his uncle could afford to support him, Zuko knew that perfectly well. But it didn't stop him from feeling guilty and it hadn't stopped him from getting angry at himself for not being able to do more.

Zuko's relationship with his steady girlfriend Jin was also starting to hit some serious rocks. He was constantly too beleaguered by his guilt or just too angry and frustrated to be fun to hang out with. Zuko was aware that he wasn't treating his girlfriend as well as she deserved it, but it seemed that Jin had started to cool on him even before Zuko's family situation had taken a turn for the worse. Jin had apparently expected a better financial arrangement when dating someone with the last name of Nakamura. For a while, she had been blinded by the wealth of his uncle, but upon learning of how much Zuko was struggling financially, Jin was clearly having second thoughts about their relationship. Zuko could sense that a breakup was imminent.

Despite all these issues, Iroh continued to insist and plead with his nephew to maintain the chosen course. There was some wisdom in uncle Iroh's words, Zuko acknowledged as much. If the Pai Sho career failed to work out, he would have a law degree to fall back on. It was a good safety cushion. And playing for a few more years among the juniors wasn't all that terrible, after all. Even though he tried not to think about his father and his sister, Zuko had to wonder what Ozai's plans for Azula were once she turned eighteen. He didn't believe that Ozai would stand for her turning pro right away. He would surely want her to get the best education possible. That meant that Zuko might run into Azula again in the U21 finals… which would give him the opportunity for vengeance he greatly longed for.

Last spring, Azula had humiliated him in front of the entire Fire Nation. If there was one thing he wanted most from his Pai Sho career, it was to exact sweet revenge upon his little sister.

Azula stood in her father's office, biting her lower lip and struggling not to cry as her father was busy berating her, Ozai having turned dangerously red in the face upon receiving the police report. Azula knew that she was in a lot of trouble, but the only thing she really cared about was whether her beloved red Spider could be repaired following her accident.

"If I'm reading this report correctly, it states that you were going fifty miles per hour in a thirty mile zone," Ozai stated, sounding irritated as he browsed the copy of the provided police report. "Is this true, Azula?"

"Y-yes, father," she had no choice but to admit. Lying to Ozai would just make the eventual punishment a lot worse. "I know that road very well. I drive on it a lot."

"Do you, now?" Ozai frowned at her. "Then perhaps you would care to explain this… accident to me?"

"I failed to realize just how cold it had gotten further up the mountain," Azula tried to explain. "I missed a little patch of black ice."

"Oh, is that all?" Ozai did not look impressed with her answer. "I know the road you speak of, Azula. I would never risk going above the speed limit on it." That was a lie. Azula knew perfectly well that on the rare occasions when Ozai took one of his many sports cars out for a drive he was speeding like the devil himself. She wasn't going to bring that up, though. "You had no business even being up there. No more taking these dangerous mountain roads, do I make myself clear?"

"Yes, sir," Azula nodded briskly, but instead of her father's admonishment, she immediately zoned in on something else he had said. "Does that mean my car can be repaired? Can I have it back?" she asked hopefully.

"It will be repaired, but we will discuss when and how you can have it back," Ozai snapped angrily. "I didn't entrust you with so much responsibility just so that you can go and almost destroy that which is most precious and important to me."

"What is that, father?" Azula asked.

Ozai turned on her, glaring fiercely. "Obviously, it's you! Idiot girl! Do you see any other heirs to the Nakamura estate around?" he shouted at her. Azula cringed and shied away from her father's outburst. "I will not have you endanger yourself like that again, do you understand?" Azula could only nod mutely in fear. It was so unfair that she was getting chewed out for this relatively minor crash, which wasn't even life threatening in any way. She had lost control of the car for the briefest of moments, but it had been enough for the back end of her Spider to brush against a wall and tear off parts of the rear bumper and suspension. It was far less serious than some of the near-accidents she had suffered up on the mountain. If Ozai knew about those, Azula was sure to be in far worse trouble.

"And then, of course, we have to address your conduct after this accident," Ozai continued, no less angry than before. "Did you really think that you could get away without me finding out? Thinking that the police would not alert me of what had happened? Trying to persuade the police officers to arrange towing the car to the nearest mechanic and having it repaired without me learning about it?" her father shook his head.

Azula cursed inwardly. She really thought she had gotten away with it. The police officers investigating the scene of the accident had been extremely helpful once she had revealed her identity to them. They had done everything she had asked of them, or at least they had promised to carry out her wishes. And perhaps they had even done so, but… they had also reported everything to Ozai. Her father really had eyes everywhere. It was times like these that she felt like a helpless fly, stuck in a spider's net.

"I'm beyond disappointed, Azula. In fact, I am livid," Ozai spoke. He had lowered his voice, but Azula knew that it was not necessarily a good sign. "The past year has been so busy. I have been away too often and for too long. In my absence, you have clearly misused the freedom I entrusted you with. You are becoming wild and you are getting out of control."

"But it was just-"

"Shut it!" Ozai barked at her. Azula flinched in the face of her father's rage. "How can you not understand that you are my most valued property? I only have one heir with no spares. I can't and I won't risk you endangering yourself this way. You don't own yourself, Azula. Not if you want to one day inherit all of this. Until then, I own you, and I decide what does and doesn't happen to you. Do I make myself clear?"

"Y-yes, father," Azula could only stutter. That confident sixteen year old, thinking herself free, speeding in her sports car with wind running wild through her hair was quickly being erased from existence, replaced by a helpless, frightened child who could not even fathom standing up for herself.

"I'm not sure this lesson is going to stick without some further reinforcement," Ozai shook his head. He reached for his leather belt, starting to undo it. "I want you to understand that doing this hurts me more than it will hurt you. But… it is for your own benefit."

As Ozai began to advance on her, Azula stood there like frozen, petrified by fear and disbelief. With a year and a half of no beatings, she had truly started to believe that these punishments had become a thing of the past.

What a fool she had been.

Zirin Sakai let out a despondent sigh as she sat in the passenger's seat of her sister's first-gen Ford Mustang, June taking them both from one of the Caldera City convention centers to their little apartment on the outskirts of the capital. The weekend speed Pai Sho tournament had just concluded, and Zirin had once again failed to place among the top dozen.

It had seemed like such a good plan to begin with. Zirin had learned that the best players amongst her peers, Zuko Nakamura, Haru Tamang and Hahn Adjuk, had all made the decision not to join the professional circuit right after turning eighteen. The two Sakai sisters were still struggling financially, trying to make their ends meet, even if June's mechanic job was working out reasonably well, allowing her to buy a solid if used car. Zirin had figured that she could help out their little household financially by taking part in the commercial speed Pai Sho tournaments that were held in the capital almost every other week. Sure, this meant that she could no longer compete with the juniors for the U21 title, but that didn't matter all that much to Zirin. She just wanted to start bringing in some money through her talent for Pai Sho.

Unfortunately… the plan was good only on paper and did not survive actual encounter with real life. These commercial tournaments all had entry fees starting from fifty yuan and going as high as two hundred. Zirin needed to place among the top six to earn back her entry fees and make a bit of a profit. Thus far, she had taken part in five tournaments, never coming close to her goal. It was a truly eye-opening moment to realize that players of her caliber were dime a dozen in the Fire Nation, all of them capable of beating her. Her chosen path right now was wasting her sister's hard earned money and pushed them deeper into poverty, struggling to keep up with their rent payments.

"Sorry," June spoke up as the car stood in a crossing, waiting for the green light. "I know you were really hoping that this time it would turn out better."

"It's okay," Zirin sighed in reply. She jerked slightly as the car began to move again, shaking her head. "No… it's really not okay, though. I have to be realistic about this."

"What do you mean, Ziri?" June asked.

"I think it's becoming painfully obvious that I have overestimated my own ability," Zirin said simply. "I thought that I had what it takes to succeed at the pro level, but I clearly don't. I can't even win some domestic tournaments against the local speed sharks."

"Maybe you just need more practice?" June asked, trying to sound encouraging. "I don't want to see you giving up on your dreams too quickly."

"Well, we can't really afford much more of this, can we?" Zirin snapped, far angrier than she had intended. June remained silent at her retort. "Sorry… you're right. Giving up on a dream is hard. But the truth is that I'm just not as talented as some of those younger girls coming up through the ranks, Azula Nakamura and the two Water Tribe chicks. And I'm nowhere near hard working enough to make up for my lack of natural aptitude. So, I'm going to try something else, June. Pai Sho will just have to become a hobby instead of a way to support ourselves."

"Any thoughts as to what you might want to do, Ziri?" June asked. Her voice was soft, as always when she felt proud of her younger sister.

"Yeah," Zirin nodded. "I'm going to take some evening classes at the community college. I've already made some inquiries. There are some openings for the next semester. And I'm going to look for a steady job."

"You're really set on this, aren't you?" June wanted to make sure.

"Yes, I have a good feeling about it," Zirin nodded with certainty. "I want to bring home a bunch of yuan every month, because I know it will make me feel much more fulfilled than the way I am feeling right now. You've been supporting us both for too long, June. It's time I started to contribute equally."

"That's… wow, I didn't expect this," June admitted. "I'm impressed, Ziri. And if you're serious about work, I can make some inquiries among my clientele. There's this one guy who runs a photo studio, he always calls on me to tweak his hog."

"His… hog?" Zirin blinked.

"Haha, yeah, his Harley-Davidson bike," June laughed. "Anyway, I know he's done some shooting sessions for girls trying to break into modeling. Some of them have even made it through with his portfolio. Hah, he even tried to talk me into doing a shoot, the cad! But, I was thinking, you might actually stand a chance, Ziri."

"Modeling? Me?" Zirin couldn't quite believe what her sister was saying. "Are you quite sure about this?"

"Have you looked at yourself in the mirror, Ziri?" June chuckled. "You are fucking gorgeous, tall and slender. You have the perfect body shape. Of course you stand a chance."

"I've never thought about it," Zirin mused thoughtfully. It really did sound tempting.

"Want me to ask the guy?" June asked. "I would come along to make sure that he doesn't perv on you or something. But I think he's solid, if a bit of a flirt."

"A bit of a flirt is fine by me," Zirin chuckled. "Alright, why the heck not? Go and put in a word for me, sis. And thanks for being so supportive, I have no idea what I would do without you."

"Likewise, Ziri," June smiled. "Likewise."

"Alright," Sokka said, sitting in the passenger's seat of the family's old Powell truck and watching his sister take a nervous hold of the steering wheel. "What's the first thing you do?"

"Seatbelt check!" Katara replied with a broad and proud grin, tugging on her own seatbelt.

"Well, yes. I thought, you know, aside from the obvious," Sokka frowned.

"Oh!" Katara's eyes widened. She stuck out the very tip of her tongue, as she occasionally did when she was focusing hard. "I got it! Check the rear view mirrors!"

"Yes, that's right. Feel free to proceed," Sokka nodded. Honestly, teaching Katara to drive was both exhausting and hilarious. And more than a little bit scary. Still, somehow the experience was endearing, and he did want to help his sister. The driving instructor assigned through their high school was an impatient and short-tempered middle-aged man, and Katara was freaking out from the very thought of being in the same car with that particular instructor.

"Uh, nothing is happening? Sokka, nothing is happening!" Katara exclaimed. This whole driving business was stressing her out, probably because it might have been the first thing in Katara's entire life that she wasn't immediately brilliant at.

Sokka facepalmed. "The parking brake," he snickered.

"Oh for the love of-" Katara groaned, turning an interesting shade of red. It wasn't likely to be the last time she'd become embarrassed during this particular driving lesson.

"Just calm down, alright?" Sokka sighed. "You need to relax. We've done all of this before." With very mixed success, but Sokka decided not to mention that. "Just clear your mind and stop stressing about it."

"Alright, clearing my mind and relaxing," Katara replied, sitting still and breathing deeply for a while. "Okay, I think I'm good now. Yes, I've got it," she said before releasing the clutch and going straight into a snow bank.

"You might want to put into reverse first," Sokka rolled his eyes. "I mean, at this rate we're not even going to make it out of the yard."

"Why wasn't it already in reverse? You're trying to play a prank on me, aren't you?" Katara gave him an accusing stare.

"I was not. You're supposed to check all these things before you actually step on the gas pedal, you know," Sokka grumbled. "At least we're not stuck, so I don't have to grab the shovels. Just put it in reverse and pull out of the yard." Keeping a pair of shovels at the back of the Powell truck was absolutely essential while teaching Katara to drive. Sokka already knew that at some point they both would be busy digging the car out of whichever weird ditch Katara managed to get stuck in.

"Alright, fine," Katara sighed, shifting the gear into reverse and very slowly pulling out of the yard and onto the street. Naga, the family Saint Bernard, was going wild in the courtyard. If someone could translate her barks into human language, she would probably be saying something along the lines of 'Mistress learn car? No, no, no! Is terrible idea!'

Outside on the street, Katara predictably stalled the car, although only a couple of times, which was somehow an improvement. Fortunately, the streets of Cape Kuruk (if they could be even called that) were completely devoid of any traffic late in the afternoon, so it was unlikely that Katara's ineptitude might cause a serious accident. "Alright, let's take her up to steady... ten miles per hour?" Sokka rolled his eyes as the car finally began to move. Katara held the steering wheel in a death grip, staring at the road ahead with frightening intensity. "You might want to shift into the second gear, sis," Sokka tried gently.

Katara shook her head stubbornly. Her lips were knit tightly, to the point of being drained of color. "This is fine," Katara insisted firmly.

"Going ten miles an hour in a thirty mile zone is dangerous, Katara," Sokka reminded her.

"Nonsense. Nobody has ever crashed by going too slow," Katara would not budge.

"No, but you might cause someone else to crash by crawling around like a snail," Sokka sighed. "C'mon, sis, try and shift the gears. It's not hard, you've done it before. Just do what I say. Release the gas pedal and hit the clutch. Okay, good, now shift into the second gear... that's not second... alright, that's the second," Sokka felt cold sweat forming on his back. "Alright, now release the clutch and step on the gas, gently, just like that. That was good! See, you didn't stall it!" And almost went into the fifth gear by accident, but those were mere details.

"Hmm, you're right, this isn't so hard," Katara seemed to have cheered up and recovered a bit of her damaged self-confidence. She was going at twenty miles now, and slowly easing her death grip on the wheel, gradually relaxing.

Sokka allowed her to drive like this for a few minutes, before urging Katara to go up another gear. Soon enough, his sister was going around the dark, weaving, slosh-covered roads of Cape Kuruk like a reasonably experienced driver. Honestly, learning to drive on these roads was not easy at all. He had started in summer when the roads were dry and in good condition, and there was plenty of natural daylight, and even then it had been challenging. Katara was facing the same difficult roads, only in snowy conditions and surrounded by darkness. It wasn't doing her any favors.

Everything seemed to be going well, until at some point, Katara spoke up nervously. "Sokka? I think a car is coming up behind us!"

"Yes, well... it was bound to happen at some point?" Sokka sighed. "We are driving on a public road, you know."

"But what should I do?" Katara asked anxiously.

"You don't have to do anything," Sokka tried to reassure her. "Just keep driving the way you are and if they're going above the limit, they'll just overtake us."

"But what if they don't see us in time and crash into us?" Katara sounded like she was starting to freak out. "I think I should pull over and let them pass."

"What?! No! Why?"

"I'm pulling over Sokka!" Katara shouted.

Ten minutes later, the two Enuaraq siblings were hard at work, using their snow shovels to dig the Powell truck out of the massive snow bank Katara had 'pulled over' and into. The car was leaning over a little to one side and Sokka was very doubtful that they could push it out all on their own. Fortunately, a few minutes later, another rare car driving down the road spotted them in the ditch and stopped to help tow their Powell truck back out onto the road. This was what Sokka loved about living in Cape Kuruk. If he was to have an accident in Agna Qel'a, hundreds of people would pass right by and nobody would stop to help, leaving him to call expensive towing service. In Cape Kuruk, literally the first person they came across stopped to help. This was the beauty of the togetherness of a small, tightly-knit community of people living in the harshest of conditions.

Katara hadn't been in any mood to drive after that little accident, so Sokka had taken it upon himself to get them both back home safely. As the car finally rolled to a stop back in the yard, Sokka looked over to his sister in the passenger seat and to his dismay, realized that she had been crying all the way back home. "Aww, come on, sis… it wasn't so bad," he said, trying to cheer her up.

"Are you kidding me?" Katara ground out, frantically rubbing her eyes. "I'm absolutely useless at his!"

"Don't be ridiculous," Sokka sighed, reaching out and trying to hug her. Katara tried to bat him away, but that just made him more determined. Eventually, Sokka managed to seize his sister and pull her into a tight embrace. "Listen to me, Kat. So, maybe you're not good at one thing. So what? Think of how I feel when I look at my school grades and think about how hard I have to work to push myself above 70%. You've reached valedictorian levels without even trying too hard, Kat. You're literally better than me at everything you try. This is like the first time I've discovered something at which I'm better than you."

Katara soon stopped sobbing, looking up at her brother. "I had no idea you felt that way, Sokka," Katara said quietly. "I've never thought myself better than you in any way, you know that."

"I know," Sokka hugged her even tighter. "And I try not to compare myself to you, but sometimes I just can't help myself. And while I am determined to help you become a good driver, there's a part of me that likes the idea that there's something you're not so great at."

Katara remained silent for some time before pulling away from him. "I'm thinking… maybe I don't actually need to do this," she said. "It's not like I absolutely must have a license, right?"

"I thought you wanted to have it, Kat," Sokka argued.

"Well, sure, eventually… but maybe driving could be your thing, Sokka," Katara replied. "I'd be fine with that, as long as you would be my driver when I need to get someplace."

"I'd like that, but only if you're sure," Sokka smiled at her.

"I'm sure," Katara quickly threw her arms around him for a quick hug before getting out of the car. "Thanks, Sokka," she said, turning to walk up to the house. Sokka couldn't help but smile broadly as he got out and followed her. As far as having a sister went, Sokka was sure he had drawn the best possible lot.

"So, I was thinking…" Yue Taqqiq cringed as she listened to her father begin speaking. Every time he opened with a sentence like that, it spelled something unpleasant for her. "The Adjuks have invited us to stay with them for a week at their private ski resort. I think we should accept the offer."

"If you think it's a good idea, father," Yue replied. Her input wasn't actually expected. Her father's words were merely polite window dressing. Everything had already been decided.

"I do think so, yes," Arnook nodded, motioning for one of the estate's servants to pour him more wine. "I think it would be good for you to get to know young Hahn a little better. He seems like an upstanding young man."

Obviously, this was what it was all really about, easing her into a sort of arranged marriage with an acceptable rich suitor. There were so many unflattering things that Yue wanted to tell her father about Hahn Adjuk, but she knew that Arnook would only become angry at her unwillingness to cooperate. Still, just thinking about spending time with Hahn instantly soured her mood and seemed to spoil the very taste of her excellent lobster thermidor.

Gradually, over the past few months, Yue had begun to become more and more disillusioned with the life that was awaiting her when she finally came of age. These family dinners with her father, both of them being cold and aloof towards one another, like characters in some play, it all made Yue resent her father's intentions for her more and more. Once she had thought that she would never even entertain the thought of rebelling and risking her inheritance. Yue still didn't think she could do it, but the thoughts had started to percolate. It didn't help that her father had really begun to push this idea of Hahn as a future husband for her. But could she really walk away from it all, just so?

Her father seemed to become encouraged by her lack of pushback, deciding to continue. "There's another reason to become closer with young Hahn, Yue," Arnook said. "You know that he is being mentored by Pakku Karetak. I have made some discreet inquiries, and Grandmaster Pakku is willing to set aside his prejudices against female students. He has agreed to let you participate in his lessons with Hahn."

"Really?" That did make Yue pause. The idea of hanging out with Hahn made her stomach churn, but lessons with Pakku Karetak himself… now, that was tempting. Sure, from what Katara had told her, Pakku was a chauvinist pig, and Katara would probably be really pissed if she found out that Yue was being mentored by him. However, this was a once in a lifetime opportunity to really take her game to the next level. This was something that Yue felt like she couldn't pass up in good conscience. "You know what, father? You're right," she summoned a fake bright smile at her father. "Perhaps I should spend more time getting to know Hahn better…"

Next chapter: It is springtime in Ba Sing Se, the U18 finals are about to begin and the heat is on!

Chapter Text

CW: Attempted non consensual sexual congress. Well, that came out of nowhere, did it.

Azula arrived for the U18 finals in Ba Sing Se as the odds on favorite to win the title. She wondered whether these supposedly knowledgeable bookmakers would still consider her the favorite if they actually knew just how out of sorts and unprepared she was at the start of the tournament.

It wasn't that she hadn't prepared. Azula had spent just as much time at the Pai Sho board as prior to all the other big tournaments in the past. It just hadn't been a time well spent. Ozai had taken an increased interest in her training, but with their relationship having worsened over the past few months, it had been an unwelcome and harrowing experience. Every little mistake she had made during their practice games had been magnified and blown out of proportion. She had been belittled and berated for every perceived flaw, and there had been physical abuse on top of it all. Not as severe as when she had crashed the car and tried to hide it, but still, there had been the occasional slap or heavy squeezing that left bruises, especially after Ozai had sampled a drink or two. Pai Sho practice became more about frantically trying to figure out what to do to avoid punishment, instead of actually opening her mind and trying to learn new things. This wasn't the way to get ready for the finals, and Azula didn't understand how her father could not see that.

Azula thought that she would be kept under tight supervision by her father during the actual tournament in Ba Sing Se. She was reasonably sure that had been the intended plan, but once again, something had come up at the last moment and Ozai had left Caldera City a day early, promising Azula to meet her in Ba Sing Se a week into the tournament and warning her not to disappoint him. Azula had then learned at the last moment that she would be flying to Ba Sing Se together with Zhao. That had been an unpleasant experience by itself. If she had known it in advance, she probably would have chosen to wear one of her snazzy pantsuits, because all throughout the flight, she constantly caught Zhao creepily checking out her legs. Azula had been incredibly relieved to learn that Zhao was only supposed to bring her to the Bosco Plaza Hotel which hosted both the tournament and its contestants.

Just being in Ba Sing Se felt a little nerve wracking for Azula. The estranged part of her family lived there, Iroh, Ursa and Zuko. Azula sincerely hoped that she wouldn't run into any of them. She didn't have to worry about Ursa and Zuko, they would be staying well away, but Iroh would probably show his know-it-all face at some point. As a grandmaster and former world champion, he was expected to make an appearance at the tournament, and Azula did not look forward to it because she was certain that her uncle would try to reach out to her, especially when he saw that Ozai was absent.

As if all these distracting thoughts weren't enough, being in Ba Sing Se also made Azula think of Ty Lee. It was possible that her first crush was still somewhere in the city, living in squalor. Azula desperately tried her best not to think about it, but the thoughts always returned unbidden, at the worst possible moment. Also, Azula couldn't stop thinking about meeting Katara Enuaraq again. A part of her was looking forward to seeing the Water Tribe girl, but the other part of Azula was worried whether Katara would even want to be friends anymore. Azula had promised to call, but then she hadn't, and a year had passed. Who really needed a friend that went absent for an entire year?

In short, Azula was not in a good and healthy frame of mind at the start of the tournament, definitely not in a shape required to perform well. Still, the draw had been kind to her and she was scheduled to play Joo Dee and Teo in the first two rounds, two of the weaker players and her regular victims. Azula firmly believed that she could defeat Joo Dee and Teo even when not at her best, and then gradually ease into tournament shape and be ready for the more dangerous opponents.

But then, a disaster had struck. She had lost her first round match to Joo Dee. She had lost to the fucking Joo Dee. It had been a humiliating disgrace and Azula thought she had heard the entire hall of spectators and other contestants laughing and openly mocking her as she made her escape as fast as she could. Azula also thought she had seen Katara trying to approach and intercept her, but Azula had been too ashamed to face anyone in the wake of such an embarrassment. She had fled to her penthouse suite to spend the rest of her day in seclusion, trying to get her head back into functional order before the next round.

And then she had gone and suffered the same embarrassing outcome against Teo Guyuk. It was almost like a mirror image of her defeat to Joo Dee. Azula could not summon any of the flair and confidence that was usually a part of her game. She just wasn't herself at the Pai Sho board right now. She had tried to force the right frame of mind to come back, but it just wasn't something that could be forced. Azula was simply not feeling it at the moment and she didn't know what to do about it.

Obviously, the disastrous start to her tournament had put Azula in a very dark place mentally, making it even harder for her to attempt a comeback. Azula knew that in order to win the tournament she would have to win the rest of her remaining nine games, and she just wasn't in that sort of shape to achieve such a feat. She had hit the self-destruct button before even arriving in Ba Sing Se. Now, all she could do was to await her father's arrival and the brutal punishment that would inevitably follow. He would probably wait for them to get back home to Caldera City before unleashing on her, but once he did… this was probably the greatest shame Azula had ever inflicted upon the Nakamura family name, so she was expecting Ozai to do terrible things to her. She seriously considered that he might actually go as far as to killing her. And then she became disturbed by her own lack of reaction to that thought, merely a meek acceptance of her fate.

That was when Azula had thought of something ingenuous. Her father was already mad at her and was going to beat her senseless. Nothing she did now could possibly make her punishment any worse, right? So… this seemed like the perfect opportunity to go out and enjoy all the things which Azula had denied herself in fear of her father's wrath, things like staying out late, enjoying booze and the company of boys. She was already in trouble. Azula figured that she might as well go all the way, living it up and going on a partying and drinking binge before her father showed up.

As soon as darkness of the evening fell, Azula headed out, making sure to wear the sexiest outfit she could put together, including her red cuissardes – ultra tall boots that went way above the knee – together with a matching red mini skirt. It didn't take her long to find a nightclub right next to the hotel. The bouncer looked very dubious about her claims of being eighteen, but with a smirk on his face he still allowed her to enter. Hot girls like Azula just didn't get turned away, even if they were clearly still minors. The bartender was a slightly different story from the bouncer, however, because selling booze to minors carried with it steep penalties, such a losing one's alcohol license. That was why five minutes after entering the club, Azula found herself sitting at the bar and trying to persuade the man behind the counter that she definitely was eighteen and not sixteen and a half, but so far neither making eyes at the bartender or straight up namedropping had worked.

"What's all this arguing about?" Azula's bickering with the bartender was suddenly interrupted by someone walking up behind them, Azula finding a hand landing on her shoulder. She whirled around to look up into the face of Chan Takahashi, his friend Ruon-Jian standing next to him, grinning.

"This child wants me to believe that she's of the legal age to drink," the bartender rolled his eyes. "It's hilarious."

"Don't say that, Ruon and I know the young lady," Chan smiled sweetly at her. "She's eighteen, just as we are," he added, giving Ruon–Jian a subtle nod of the head. "Here, we'll vouch for her," Chan said as Ruon discreetly slipped the bartender a couple of rolled up hundred yuan bills.

"Now, how about some goddamn drinks," Ruon winked at the bartender.

"Sure, perfectly legal eighteen year olds, what would you like to have?" the man behind the counter asked.

"Azula, baby, what would you like?" Chan asked as he and Ruon sat down on either side of her.

Azula was vaguely aware that getting drunk with Chan and Ruon was a terrible idea. However, she was done giving a fuck about the best behavior expected of her. Her father was on his way to either kill her or make her wish she was dead. And she was going to do all the stupid and ill-advised things that she could manage to do before Ozai arrived. "Recommend something, big boy," she chuckled at Chan.

"How about some absinthe?" Ruon-Jian suggested.

"Fuck no," the bartender shook his head. "I am not giving her absinthe. You don't have enough money to bribe me to do crazy shit like that."

"I think I want some of this absinthe, whatever it is," Azula insisted. This seemed like a stupid and dangerous idea, so of course, she was now determined to try it.

"Forget it," the bartender shook his head. "You want to get fucked up? I'll mix you some Shuhon Island Iced Teas. At least those won't kill you."

"You're offering me tea? What is this, a tea room for the elderly?" Azula rolled her eyes, making the others burst into laughter.

"Baby, this iced tea will make you feel really warm and really good, trust me," Chan grinned at her. "Also, it's incredibly delicious… just as delicious as you."

"Yeah, you're going to love it, Azula," Ruon-Jian nodded. Azula was perfectly aware of his hand occasionally landing on her knee or her thigh, just as Chan's hand moved between her shoulder and all the way down to her lower back.

When she had thought about hanging out with some boys, Chan and Ruon-Jian hadn't exactly been at the top of her list. However, she was determined to make as many idiotic and terrible choices as she could manage, and for that purpose, hanging out with Chan and Ruon shot right up to the top of said list. "All I'm hearing so far are promises," Azula snorted, then facing the two guys with a sultry smile. "Let's hope you can actually deliver on them."

The Jasmine Dragon teahouse directly next to the Bosco Plaza Hotel had almost instantly become something of a regular hangout for Katara and her friends. With Jasmine Dragon teahouses becoming a thriving international chain (there were no less than eleven of them in Ba Sing Se alone!), obviously, they could not expect to run into Iroh Nakamura himself at one of his many teahouses. However, Uncle Iroh was scheduled to attend the tournament as a guest of honor at some point towards its conclusion, and all of them were looking forward to it.

Every afternoon following the conclusion of their tournament games, Katara, Yue, Toph and Aang would come to the teahouse, whip out their Pai Sho boards and go over their games, analyzing them together. It was a great way to learn from their mistakes, improve their game and prepare for the upcoming matches. Sokka was hanging out with them, although he faced a hard time hiding his boredom, and Katara often had to tell him off for trying to distract Yue or for trying to steal his girlfriend away for a few making out sessions.

The tournament had started very confusingly. Everyone was in shock about the pre-tournament favorite Azula Nakamura playing atrociously and losing her first two games. At the same time, the others were failing to capitalize on this opportunity. For the first time in the tournament's history, nobody had managed to win their first two games. Four of the participants were on 1.5 points out of 2, Katara, Aang, Yue and Kori Morishita. Katara was slightly disappointed with herself for failing to beat Aang in their game. Once again, she had been let down by her lack of killer instinct when facing her two younger friends. She had no trouble defeating Yue, the girl she was in love with. But when Katara faced Aang or Toph, her mothering instincts seemed to kick in and she just couldn't deliver the killing blow.

Despite getting off to a reasonable start in the tournament and being able to finally spend time with her amazing friends, Katara felt frustrated, worried and unhappy, and it all had to do with Azula Nakamura. Coming to Ba Sing Se, Katara had hoped to rekindle the friendship she thought they had established the year before in Caldera City. However, Azula's tournament was off to a terrible start and she had all but fled the game hall following her two embarrassing defeats, ignoring Katara's attempts to reach out to her. Katara just didn't know what to do or how to help the other girl. At least Katara would be facing Azula in the next round. Azula would have no way to avoid communicating with her then.

"Hey, Sugar Queen? Have you gone deaf or something?" Katara suddenly found Toph's hand roughly shaking her shoulder, the Water Tribe girl having drifted off to her thoughts. "We all keep asking what you thought about my last move!"

"Oh… sorry, I didn't mean to ignore you," Katara blushed, trying to focus on the position of tiles on the Pai Sho board. Focusing was easier said and done, however, when she was this distracted. Whatever was going on with Azula Nakamura was starting to spread and affect her as well, threatening to throw Katara off her game. "Let me see…"

"I think I know what you were thinking about, Katara," Yue gave her a cheeky smile, making Katara blush even harder. "Honestly, though, I'm just as perplexed as everyone else. It's like someone has replaced Azula Nakamura with a clone that sucks at Pai Sho."

"Something clearly is wrong with her," Toph nodded. "Not that I really care," she hastened to add. "If the favorite shoots herself in the foot like that… well, she's doing a massive favor for the rest of us."

"Forget about Pai Sho, I'm just worried about what's going on in her head," Katara sighed. "I wish she'd talk to me. Something serious must have happened for it to have affected her like this."

"I agree with Katara," Aang nodded in agreement. "Azula doesn't even look herself right now."

"You've been… studying her a lot, Twinkletoes?" Toph asked innocently.

"Oh, shut up!" Aang grumbled, playfully punching Toph in the shoulder. Toph shoved him right back so hard that she nearly knocked Aang out of his seat. The Air Nation kid quickly recomposed himself. "I meant that she looks timid and frightened. Not her confident self at all."

"Well, I'm not letting her flee after our game tomorrow," Katara said with determination. "I'm prepared to tackle her if that's what it takes to get to the bottom of what's going on with her."

"You're really invested in her well-being, Kat," Yue remarked, in a slightly odd tone of voice that Katara couldn't immediately place. It almost sounded as if she was a little jealous? Surely that couldn't be, though, so Katara quickly dismissed the thought.

"Well, yes, because ever since I've learned what her father is capable of, I can't help but feel worried about her," Katara sighed. "She's playing just awful right now. I am terrified from simply thinking about what her father might do to her if she doesn't pull herself together. She's not a bad person whatever any of you might think. She's just a kid, like the rest of us. That her father would be beating her senseless, the thought of it sickens me. Of course I'm determined to help her!" she finished passionately.

"You're right," Yue nodded, smiling in agreement. "It is sick. And if there's anything I can do to help, just let me know. Maybe you can talk Azula into hanging out with our little group. That might cheer her up. I think we'd all be fine with that, yes?" she looked around expectantly.

"Of course!" Aang nodded quickly. "I'm always happy to make new friends, no matter how prickly they seem at first," he added, winking at Toph.

"Hey! Don't you compare me to that prissy 'I'm better than everyone else' bitch!" Toph glared back at Aang. "And yeah, I'm not really all that excited about hanging out with her."

"Come on, Toph, drop that tough girl act for once," Yue said, unusually sternly for her. "You have to admit that the way Ozai Nakamura treats his daughter is not right."

"Ugh… well, sure. Obviously," Toph rolled her eyes. "Well, fine, since you're all for it, I'm not going to be the lone dissenter. Bring her along if you want. But if she says stupid shit, I'm so going to call her out on it."

"She actually doesn't mind that," Katara smiled. "Azula is ignorant about a lot of things, but when you point them out to her, she doesn't dismiss them and she actually considers your arguments. That's kind of why I enjoyed hanging out with her." She then glanced at her brother. "Sokka, you haven't said anything. Are you alright with the plan?"

"Of course, sis," Sokka nodded. "Listen, I was kind of an insensitive dick when I first told you about Azula getting pummeled by her father. But after hanging out with her at the after-party last year… yeah, Azula is alright. I mean, she can't be that bad, she actually laughed at one of my awesome jokes."

"I think that was more of a sad pity laugh, Sokka," Yue quipped.

"Oh no! Cruelly betrayed by my own girlfriend!" Sokka exclaimed dramatically.

"What a pair of dorks," Toph chuckled. "Hey, Twinkletoes?" she turned towards Aang. "We're running low on tea, go get some more for us. Oh, and more of those awesome little butter cookies," Toph commanded, handing Aang a handful of yuan. Aang looked a little miffed at being ordered around, but then just grinned irrepressibly and walked off.

With Sokka and Yue having stepped a little aside for a subtle session of smooching, Toph and Katara were left at the table all by themselves. "Sugar Queen?" Toph spoke up eventually. "Twinkletoes finally asked me out. You know, like… on a real date."

"Oh, he did? That's wonderful!" Katara clapped her hands excitedly. "About time, too! Where is Aang taking you?"

"Nowhere," Toph shrugged. "I told him that I just wanted to be friends with him and nothing more than that."

Katara felt her eyes bulging from shock and surprise. "What? But I thought you really liked Aang! Why would you turn him down? Isn't this what you wanted?"

"Yeah, I thought I wanted it, but…" Toph looked uncertain. "I don't know. I definitely wanted it two years, maybe even a year ago. But we've spent so much time being best buds that I'm having a hard time seeing Aang as anything else but a friend. I think he actually feels the same way. He was probably asking me out from a sense of duty or something stupid like that. I think he was relieved when I said no."

"Aww, and I was hoping that you two would end up being an item," Katara sighed. "Well, as long as you're sure that this is what you want."

"I'm reasonably sure," Toph nodded. "I mean, I was crushing on Aang when I was twelve. That's like being a total child. What kind of loser ends up with the guy or girl they were crushing on at twelve?"

"Uh, I guess so, Toph," Katara shrugged, then subtly nodding towards Aang, approaching with the tray and bringing with him a pair of steaming teapots, a little jug of milk, and three bowls full of Toph's favorite butter cookies. Sokka and Yue rejoined them shortly and they then spent the next hour analyzing Katara's win over Ruon-Jian and Yue's drawn game with Chan Takahashi. It was getting past eight in the evening by the time they all felt they had done enough preparation for the next round of play.

"So, tomorrow I'm playing Chan, and Katara has a date with Azula," Toph stated, her words making Katara spill a few drops of her tea. "Aang, Yue, remind me who you're up against?"

"I'm playing Kori," Aang said. "She seems to be playing really well this year, so I need to be careful."

"And I'm up against Joo Dee," Yue added. "She did defeat Azula, although… I think it was more a case of Azula defeating herself, really."

"So, tomorrow should be four wins out of four for the team," Toph nodded with certainty. "I don't know about the rest of you, but I'm done with Pai Sho for tonight. Another look at that board and I'm going to puke out all those cookies I've eaten. Are we ready to head back to the hotel?"

"Feel free to do that, Yue and I are going to see a late night showing of 'Night of the Living Dead'," Sokka said.

"Oooh, I've been meaning to see that!" Toph exclaimed eagerly. "C'mon, Twinkletoes, you're coming with me." Aang blinked, but then seemed to resign himself to his fate.

"Toph, you should be aware that Sokka and Yue will want to sit in the back row and spend most of the movie making out," Katara said, aware that she was failing to keep a pang of jealousy out of her voice. Yue shot her a guilty and apologetic look that instantly made Katara feel horrible. Yes, she was jealous of her brother's relationship with Yue, but she didn't want to make Yue feel guilty.

"Well, Aang and I won't be doing that," Toph nodded with certainty. "Besides, I can't do the back row, my eyesight isn't good enough even with the spectacles. Anyway, you coming, Sugar Queen?"

"Oh, no… no, I think I'll head back to the hotel and turn in early," Katara shook her head. "But I hope the rest of you have a great time at the movies."

Soon afterwards, Katara parted ways with the rest of the group outside of the Jasmine Dragon teahouse, herself heading back towards the nearby Bosco Plaza Hotel. Katara smiled and greeted the receptionist as she made her way towards the elevator, then sighing as the elevator doors closed almost right in her face. The light indicator above the doors showed that the elevator was heading all the way up to the penultimate eleventh floor. Considering that it would be a long wait and she only needed to get up to the fourth floor, Katara decided to quickly jog up the stairs.

When she emerged in the otherwise empty hallway, Katara was immediately alerted by the voices coming from around the corner. "C'mon, Chan, stop making out with her, let's just get her to my room fast." The voice seemed to belong to Ruon-Jian Ogawa.

"This is harder than it looks, dumbass, she can't even stand up anymore," Chan chuckled back at his buddy.

Feeling both concerned and alarmed by what was going on Katara rounded the corner and froze. Chan had Azula up against the wall, pushing tightly against her and kissing her, while Ruon-Jian was standing close by, leaning in to run his hand up Azula's thigh and under her skirt.

Katara felt blood hitting her temples in a maddening rush of anger as she stepped forth to intervene. "What do you two think you're doing?" she exclaimed angrily, forcing the two boys to pull away from Azula. Without their support, the Fire Nation girl slid down to floor, remaining slumped, completely out of it.

"Well, Chan, look who turned up just at the right time," Ruon-Jian slowly began to approach Katara, a sleazy, drunken grin on his face. "I mean, a threesome was going to be awesome, but a foursome? That's even better."

"Hell, yeah!" Chan cheered drunkenly. "Grab her!"

Ruon-Jian made a move to seize her, but Katara pulled back at just the right moment. She wanted to scream for help, hoping that someone in the nearby rooms would come to their aid, but overcome by panic, Katara instead simply froze, unable to act. Ruon-Jian was about to grab her when much to Katara's relief, there was the familiar jingle of the arriving elevator right behind her. The sound alerted the two Fire Nation delinquents and they snapped out of their momentary bout of insanity, suddenly looking frightened. Moments later, they dashed off to hide in their respective rooms, leaving Katara to stand over a drunk and passed out Azula.

"My goodness! What happened here?" a male voice spoke up as the hotel guests emerging from the elevator rounded the corner and spotted them. Katara was relieved to see that it was Teo Guyuk and his scientist father accompanying him. It was the elder man who now rushed forward to check up on them. "Is your friend alright, young miss?" he asked in concern.

"Oh… is that Azula?" Teo asked, pulling closer in his wheelchair. "Katara, what happened to her?"

"I think she has enjoyed one drink too many," Katara replied. "She probably made a poor choice of company for the evening. I only just came across her here." She briefly pondered whether to mention what Chan and Ruon-Jian had clearly intended, then deciding to keep quiet for now. She didn't want to create a scandal involving Azula. Who could say how her father would react to that? Ozai Nakamura could easily be that type of man who thought that women invited these sorts of unwelcome advances against themselves by dressing or acting inappropriately.

"Should we get a doctor?" Teo's father asked, sounding concerned.

"I don't think so, Mr. Guyuk," Katara shook her head. "But I would appreciate your help getting her to safety. I think dragging Azula up to the penthouse would be too much work. My room is close by. I can watch over her."

"That's very kind of you, Miss Katara," Teo's father smiled. Together with Katara, they managed to somehow propel Azula up to her feet and then they stumbled all the way to Katara's room. Mr. Guyuk helped Katara lower Azula on the bed, ensuring that she was resting comfortably before leaving.

"Thank you so much for helping, Mr. Guyuk, I don't think I could have managed that without your assistance," Katara once again thanked the kind man. Teo was really taking after his father in that regard. As a general rule, people of the Earth Kingdom, at least in the major cities like Ba Sing Se, were rarely as kind and helpful as Teo and his father. Then again, they came from a small village so far up north that they might as well consider themselves to be culturally Water Tribe.

"If you notice her condition worsening, please don't hesitate to ask the receptionist to send for a doctor," Mr. Guyuk told her. "Hopefully it won't be necessary and the worst she'll have to deal with will be a terrible hangover in the morning."

"Oh…" Katara didn't know anything about hangovers. She was way too proper. "What can I do to help her with that?"

"Have her drink plenty of water. Juice of any citrus fruit is good, too. And a couple of Tylenol pills for the headache should work wonders," Teo's father explained.

"Good, I have some orange juice and a bottle of Tylenol," Katara nodded, bidding farewell to Teo and his father, then closing the door to her room and making sure that it was properly locked. Chan and Ruon had appeared spooked, but she didn't want to take any chances. Then Katara turned on the small lamp on the nightstand and spent the next twenty minutes trying to pull off Azula's ridiculously massive boots. While Katara definitely appreciated the aesthetic of Azula's boots, they had to be the most impractical footwear she had ever come across. When Katara had finally managed to pull the cuissardes off, she was drenched in sweat.

Katara then considered her next steps. When it came to the rest of Azula's clothing, Katara wasn't going to touch it, uncomfortable as sleeping in it might be. However, there was one thing that she wanted to do before turning in and that was to remove Azula's makeup, before repeating the procedure with her own makeup. Azula didn't make a single sound throughout the whole ordeal, remaining passed out. Katara then made sure to find the carton of orange juice and a bottle of Tylenol pills, leaving them on the table in case they would be required in the morning.

Having done all that, Katara quickly shucked her clothes and slipped into her blue pajamas with white stars before crawling into the bed. It was large enough to leave plenty of room for both her and Azula. Katara leaned back onto her pillow and stared up at the ceiling, wondering about the absurdity of the situation and feeling relieved to hear the steadiness of Azula's breathing. Suddenly, Katara began to remember something she had read in the papers recently, about some celebrity who had died in their sleep after overdosing on some drugs… was it barbiturates or something like that? What if Azula wasn't just drunk, what if those idiots had also drugged her?

Katara became frantic from worry, wondering what she should do. Perhaps she ought to have called for the doctor after all. Maybe Azula should have her stomach pumped. Then again, she seemed to be breathing freely and calmly, so perhaps everything was fine. Still, just to be completely sure, Katara decided to quickly dash into the bathroom and fill a glass of water. Returning to the bed, she managed to get Azula awake enough to force her to empty the glass of water. Some of the liquid ended up getting spilled, but Azula managed to swallow most of it. Then, remembering what she had read about overdosing victims suffocating on their own vomit, Katara rolled Azula onto her side to prevent this from happening. To make sure that Azula wouldn't roll over again in her sleep, Katara ended up trapping the other girl between the wall and her body.

And that was how Katara ended up falling asleep several hours later, with the help of a Librium pill and with her left side pressing up tightly against the back of a softly snoring Azula…

Next chapter: Katara helps Azula deal with a massive hangover and all sorts of fallout as they sit down for a Serious Conversation.

Chapter Text

CW: someone expresses a highly problematic opinion about lack of consent.

Katara awoke the next morning to the disturbing sounds of a dying seal crying out in distress. Wait, a dying seal in a Ba Sing Se hotel? That can't be right. Katara reared her head from the pillow and listened in once more. There was the disturbing sound again, coming straight from her bathroom. On second thought, it sounded a lot like… retching?

Azula! Memories of last night came back in a flood as Katara jumped out of the bed and ran straight for the bathroom, seeing that Azula's side of the bed was empty. The bathroom was an absolute mess. Azula had done her best trying to get to the sink, but she hadn't made it in time, and so the bathroom floor was covered with foul smelling vomit. Azula herself had collapsed on the floor, but at least the upper part of her body was in the shower cabin, and she had made most of the mess in there. Her clothes were all filthy, covered with puke. She was an absolute, miserable mess.

"Good grief!" Katara exclaimed. She wanted to approach Azula to check up on her, but there was just so much puke everywhere, it was making her queasy. "Are you even alive there?" she asked. Azula responded with a weak groan. Well, that was a good sign. "Hang on, I'll try to make my way over to you," Katara said. In the absence of a proper mop and a bucket, Katara's only option was to sacrifice a few of the bath towels, soaking them in the sink and then wiping up most of the mess Azula had made on the floor. This allowed Katara to walk up to Azula and crouch next to her without making a complete mess of her own clothes.

"Okay, this is probably a stupid question, but how do you feel?" Katara asked. Azula groaned again. She was gesturing vaguely towards her head, which could mean only one thing. She was having a mother of all headaches. "I'll go get the Tylenol, be right back." Katara returned a moment later, carrying two pills and an empty glass which she filled with water from the tap. "I'll need you to swallow these pills, Azula," she said, crouching next to the suffering girl in the shower cabin.

"Just going to… puke them… straight out," Azula managed, wincing at every word.

"I doubt you have anything left in you to vomit out," Katara sighed. She literally had to push the pills past Azula's lips. Fortunately, when she pressed the glass of water against Azula's mouth, she drank eagerly, swallowing the painkillers. "Alright, I guess… you better lay there for a while until the pills kick in. I'll just clean up some more in the meantime," she sighed, sacrificing another towel to finish cleaning up in the bathroom.

Katara soon encountered another problem. Azula had thrown up all over herself, which meant that the floor under her was also a complete mess, not to mention that she continued to spread this mess with every movement she made. "Azula, I'll need you to get all the way into the shower cabin," Katara said. "I can just rinse that clean later, no problem. Can you do that for me?"

Groaning and moaning like a dying walrus, Azula tried her best to crawl all the way inside the shower cabin. Despite her monumental effort, she probably wouldn't have made it if Katara hadn't pushed her on the bum in order to help. Once inside the shower cabin, Azula collapsed again, looking exhausted. She had always been of a rather pale complexion, but right now, the Fire Nation girl looked worryingly white as a sheet of paper.

Katara decided to just let Azula rest for a while until Tylenol started to kick in. Instead, Katara focused on finishing cleaning the bathroom, ruining the last of the towels and then dumping them all in a bin. She didn't envy the unfortunate member of the cleaning staff who would have to deal with all that filth.

Now there was another problem, and that was Azula's clothes. Katara eventually managed to find a plastic bag where they could discard the ruined clothes, as she doubted that Azula would ever want to touch them again. Seeing that Azula was still a little too out of it to do anything about her clothes, Katara poured some orange juice into a glass and brought it over to the suffering girl. "Here, drink some of this," she urged a reluctant looking Azula.

"Hate orange juice," Azula was not intent on cooperating.

"Even if it makes you feel better?" Katara asked. "Come now, Azula. Down the hatch it goes," she pressed the glass more firmly against Azula's mouth, and the other girl finally parted her lips, swallowing the juice with large mouthfuls. "I guess we just have to wait a little longer for the meds to kick in, huh?"

"I do feel a little bit better," Azula managed weakly. "Feel so gross, though."

"We'll need to get rid of your clothes," Katara nodded. "And you'll want to shower. But let's not rush it."

"What time is it?" Azula asked. She was starting to slowly pull herself up to her feet, despite Katara questioning the wisdom of it.

"I've no idea," Katara confessed. She poked her head outside of the bathroom to check the wall clock. "Quarter past nine. So we have a bit of time. Not too much, though."

"I'm literally going to kill myself unless I can take a shower right now," Azula groaned. Somehow, she had managed to propel herself upwards, leaning against the tile covered wall. "I'm so sticky it's fucking gross," she said. "Right… where can I dump these clothes?"

"I have a bag right here," Katara said, quickly retrieving the plastic bag. "Do you, uh, need any help with that?"

"I should be able to undress myself just fine." A little bit of bite was coming back into Azula's voice now, indicating that she was feeling slightly better. She was still unsteady as she began to slowly undress and dump the ruined clothes into the plastic bag that Katara held out for her. Katara hadn't exactly thought through the logistics of it all to the tiniest detail, so she wasn't sure how Azula would handle the part with her underwear. Katara was quite shocked and assumed that Azula was still highly intoxicated when the other girl stripped down fully naked in front of her and threw her underwear into the bag along with the rest of her clothing. Despite doing her best not to stare, Katara still ended up turning completely red in the face as the doors of the shower cabin closed in her face.

Azula ran the shower for a few seconds, then stopping the water right away. "Wait a moment," she spoke up just as Katara was about to leave to get rid of the bag with filthy clothes. "I don't actually have a spare set of clothing with me."

"Yeah, I was thinking of giving you one of my dresses so that you can at least get back to your penthouse suite," Katara replied. "But I hadn't considered that you'd throw away your underwear as well."

"I can't be seen wearing your peasant clothes. Not even to get back to my rooms," Azula replied. Well, she's saying stupid shit again, so yep, she's definitely recovering, Katara concluded.

"Well, in that case we have a problem," Katara sighed. "Oh, and also, there's another issue. I'm out of bathroom towels. They're all covered in your puke."

"Sorry," Azula said quietly. She sounded like she truly meant that.

"It's not your fault," Katara replied.

"It really is, though," Azula argued back. "But I can fix it. You could just go up to my penthouse suite and fetch all the stuff I need, a set of clothes and some towels. The key should be in my purse."

"Right, I think I saw your purse by the bed," Katara said. "Alright then, I'll leave you to shower and go pick up the stuff. You're going to be alright in there?"

"Of course I'll be alright," Azula snapped, almost sounding irritated. "Thank you, Katara," she added a moment later. Now she sounded guilty.

"Don't mention it," Katara replied. "I'll be right back." She walked out of her room, locking the door behind her. Katara then turned and walked up to the elevator. Unfortunately, while she was waiting for the elevator, Sokka and Yue came up to her from behind.

"Morning, Kat!" Yue exclaimed, greeting her with a hug. "It seems like we're not the only ones late for breakfast."

"I just hope there's some food left," Sokka lamented, as always having his priorities straight.

"I am definitely going to join you for breakfast, but not right away," Katara replied. "I need to... take care of something else first," she added as the elevator doors opened with a cheerful jingle. Katara got in ahead of the others, pressing the button for the penthouse suite without much thinking.

"Uh, sis, why are we going to the penthouse?" Sokka gave her a confused stare.

"This probably isn't the best time to drop in unexpected on Azula Nakamura," Yue added. "If there even is a good time for such a thing."

Katara knew that she had to quickly make up some story. She couldn't tell Sokka and Yue that Azula Nakamura was currently in her shower, naked, and she was going to retrieve some clothes and towels for Azula. "Azula is currently in my shower and I'm going to retrieve some spare clothes for her," Katara's mouth opened and words just came out. She literally was the worst liar in the whole world.

Sokka and Yue exchanged shocked and disbelieving stares. "I would suspect this being some kind of a joke if I didn't know that my sister doesn't have a sense of humor," Sokka blinked as the elevator stopped at the penthouse floor. Katara quickly got out and stopped the others when they tried to follow her.

"Please, just let me take care of this, I promise to tell you everything later, alright?" she uttered quickly, reaching back into the elevator cabin and hitting the button to bring Sokka and Yue down to the cafeteria floor. Her brother and her best friend exchanged stares and shrugged, but fortunately did not protest, leaving Katara alone to do what she had come for. She wasted no time to grab a set of clothing for Azula, trying to stave off a blush while searching the drawer of Azula's underwear, and finally grabbing a pair of bathroom towels, one for Azula, and another one for her own shower later. It all took her a few minutes, and soon she was on her way back to her room, arriving to find Azula still busy in the shower. Apparently, her Fire Nation friend enjoyed lengthy showers, which was something they both definitely had in common.

"Azula? I'm putting your clothes down by the sink, on top of the towel," Katara called out over the sound of running water. "I'm going to leave you alone to finish up." Azula didn't reply, continuing to scrub herself clean, so Katara returned to her room and sat down on the bed, trying her best to compartmentalize everything that had happened since the previous evening. Also, she was desperately trying not to think about having seen Azula naked, or about the really cute looking heart-shaped birthmark just below Azula's left breast.

Eventually, the shower stopped running and a few minutes later, Azula reappeared, fully dressed. Her hair was still moist and messy, and she looked strangely genuine and vulnerable without her makeup on. For some reason, seeing Azula like this was making Katara's heart flutter slightly. "You do realize that this skirt doesn't match the top at all, right?" Azula asked sharply, breaking the spell.

"What?" Katara blinked. She had no idea what Azula was talking about. As far as she was concerned, the other girl looked cute in the flaring red skirt and the striped sleeveless tunic. "I'm sure it's good enough to get you back to your room, Azula," she pointed out.

"You're probably right," Azula nodded. She picked up her purse from the table where Katara had left it, looking around the room and spotting her red cuissarde boots. "Ugh, could you throw those away too, please? I don't feel like wearing them again."

"If you're sure," Katara said. Azula nodded again. "Do you remember anything at all from last night?" she asked.

Azula frowned, then glancing at the wall clock. It was almost a quarter to ten and the tournament play began at 11am. "There's no time to go over that now," Azula said decisively. "I should get ready to play… somehow. Damn it, I can't even remember who I'm supposed to be playing today."

"Uh… you're playing me," Katara said, blushing slightly.

"Seriously?" Azula's reaction was a hollow laugh. "Well, that fucking figures." She sank into the nearby chair. "At least you're going to have an easy time of it for once. I'm obviously in no state to play today."

"Yeah, I can see that," Katara sighed. She already knew that beating Azula on top of everything else that had happened to the other girl would bring her no satisfaction at all. "Listen, Azula. You probably don't know how you ended up in my room, right?" Azula shook her head at that. "Let's try and put the pieces of the puzzle together, shall we? How much do you remember from last night?"

Azula let out a deep sigh before she replied. "I remember going to this club, not far from the hotel. I remember arguing with the bartender. The asshole didn't want to pour me drinks. Then Chan and Ruon-Jian showed up, slipped a bit of cash to the bartender, and then the booze started flowing. The rest kind of blurs together and into a mist, honestly," Azula finished, then giving Katara a curious stare. "So, how did I end up in your care?" she asked.

"I was coming back to my room after hanging out with my friends, when by pure chance I came across Ruon and Chan. They were about to drag you off to Ruon's room," Katara explained. She instantly became horrified by the completely blank look on Azula's face at that statement. "Surely you have an idea of what they intended to do with you if they had succeeded, right?" Katara asked. The very thought of what could have happened was making her dizzy with disgust and anger, and Azula's non-reaction was bothering her a great deal.

"I can imagine, yes," Azula nodded simply.

"Does that not mean anything to you?" Katara was almost shouting by now. "I think we should report those two assholes. They need to be thrown out of the tournament!"

"No, we can't do that," Azula shook her head. She suddenly looked a little panicked for reasons that Katara couldn't immediately guess. "I shouldn't have been at that club in the first place. If my father finds out that I was there and lied about my age…"

"I was afraid you would say something like that," Katara sighed. "Fine, I don't want to get you into even more trouble with your father. But it's just not right that Ruon and Chan should get away with something like that! I mean, what they intended was r-… ugh, I can't even say it, it's too horrible!"

"I think you are being overly dramatic about it all," Azula replied calmly. It only served to further outrage Katara.

"How am I being overly dramatic?" she shouted. "What would you call it then?"

"I don't know," Azula shrugged. "But I kind of showed up at that club because I was looking for something like that to happen. So I can't even blame them too much. It's quite possible that I was leading them on."

Katara couldn't quite believe what she was hearing. "Azula, I… I'm genuinely horrified by your words," she gasped. "You're a minor and you were in no state to reasonably give your consent. You can't put this on yourself. Why would you? And why did you want something like that to happen? It's horrible!" Azula swallowed heavily and looked away, unable to hold Katara's intense stare. "Does it have anything to do with the way you've been playing? Is this… I don't know, your way of rebelling against your father?"

"No, I'm not rebelling," Azula rolled her eyes. "You wouldn't understand, Katara."

"Try me," Katara insisted. "I deserve that much after helping you out."

Azula seemed to consider her words, eventually agreeing with a nod. "Fair enough," she said. "You know that I've had a terrible start to the tournament. It's the talk of the town. My father is going to be livid when he arrives in a few days. Since I'm in all sorts of trouble already, well… I thought I might as well go all out with the stupid things I'm normally not allowed to do. That's all there really was to it."

"I'm… trying to be understanding here, Azula, but you nearly got yourself r-" Katara paused. Once again, she felt too disgusted to actually say the word. "Abused by two absolute scumbags," she said instead. She was having a hard time accepting that Azula could explain these things away so casually. "You couldn't have wanted for that to happen, Azula, that's crazy!"

"Why are you so upset about it all?" Azula looked confused.

"Why am I upset?" Katara's voice rose without thinking. "Because I don't want horrible things to happen to you! I thought we were supposed to be friends! That means I care about what happens to you, you idiot!"

Azula's eyes widened at Katara's outburst. For a moment, she appeared lost for words. "I'm sorry," she mumbled forlornly. "I don't know how to react to someone telling me things like that. Somebody caring about what I'm going through? How am I supposed to deal with something like that?"

"Oh for the love of-," Katara buried her head in her hands. Much to her dismay and embarrassment, she began to cry.

"I'm sorry, I keep saying stupid shit, I guess. I should just leave," Azula rose to walk away, looking uncomfortable.

"No! No, damn it, stay! Sit down!" Katara exclaimed loudly. Azula looked surprised, sitting right back down again. "I'm not crying because you offended me. I'm crying because no human being should ever be made to feel like nobody cares about what they're going through," Katara tried to explain. "Perhaps you have been raised to feel that way, Azula, but that is not right. It's really not."

Azula looked thoughtful and uncertain. "You may be right. The thought of someone caring about what I'm dealing with is… I don't know, nice?" she tried.

"Well, I care! I really, really do!" Katara insisted tearfully. "I really hoped that we could be friends, Azula. I was hoping so much that you would call me, but you never did. I could have been there for you. I wanted to be there for you."

Azula winced, a shadow of guilt passing across her face. "I wanted to call. And I did," she said quietly. "But someone else picked up the phone. I think it was your father. I lost my nerve and didn't try again."

"Can we please try again?" Katara asked desperately. Azula gave her a relieved nod. "Thank you. When does your father arrive in Ba Sing Se?"

Azula looked at the calendar on the wall. "Today is Wednesday. I think Zhao said that my father will arrive on Sunday," she said.

"That means we have four days," Katara spoke decisively. "So here's what's going to happen. Instead of sneaking into some sleazy nightclubs and doing crazy, dangerous shit, you're going to hang out with me and my friends. We're going to have a lot of fun together, you'll see. It's exactly what you need."

"I'm pretty sure your friends hate me, Katara," Azula said, looking dubious. "I'm fine with spending time just with you, though."

Katara blushed slightly. "Well, I'm flattered to hear that, but I can assure you that my friends don't hate you. In fact, they want to hang out with you. I know this for a fact because I have already asked them about it," Katara finished decisively.

"Has anyone ever told you that you can be very forceful and pushy?" Azula asked. She seemed a little amused.

"It might have come up in some conversations in the past," Katara admitted, blushing again. "Do we have an agreement, then?" she asked.

"Do I have a choice?" Azula asked with an exaggerated sigh.

"You'll always have a choice with me, as much as I'd like to press you into doing this because I'm so firmly convinced that it'll be good for you," Katara said.

"Alright, fine, I agree," Azula gave in, much to the other girl's delight.

"You're also going to tell me why you are so off your game," Katara insisted. "This isn't like you at all, and I'm going to get to the bottom of it."

Azula sighed, glancing at the clock. It was a few minutes past ten and they really had to start getting ready and make themselves presentable. "I don't see why you have to know everything about my life," Azula complained. "Besides, there's no time for that story now. I should be getting ready for my next defeat."

Katara's heart sank at Azula's words. She really didn't want to take advantage of the other girl's shaky mental state, but it wasn't as if their game could be postponed, the tournament officials would not stand for it. "Well, we'll see what happens, but Azula, I know that afterwards hanging out with my friends will put you in a better frame of mind for your next games," Katara promised, walking Azula up to the doors to let her out. "Oh, and another thing I just remembered… Yue and Sokka spotted me going up to the penthouse. They kind of know that you were in my room and they'll want to know what happened. What are you comfortable with me telling them?"

Azula thought for a moment. "Just tell them that you came across me drunk and passed out last night," Azula said. "Please leave Chan and Ruon-Jian out of the story. I don't want to deal with more drama right now. If I'll feel like it, I'll find a way to give them some much deserved comeuppance."

"Alright, as you wish," Katara frowned, obviously not happy about letting Chan and Ruon off the hook. Though perhaps it wasn't a story to share with her younger friends in particular, but Katara still thought that they should have gone to the police. Then again, Azula didn't need more trouble with her violent father. Perhaps this was for the best… for now.

"And Katara?" she looked up to see Azula staring at her with rare sincerity in her amber eyes. "Thank you. I really mean it."

"Think nothing of it," Katara replied, turning around before the heated blush managed to hit her cheeks.

Less than an hour later, Katara was facing Azula again, this time at the Pai Sho board. Azula had used the half an hour of time well and appeared almost like her usual confident self, even if Katara knew that it was just a mask which on this occasion Azula wasn't even wearing particularly well. Indeed, soon after the game had began, the mask came off very quickly and Azula's lack of confidence and compromised mental state began to tell as she made several key mistakes early on and her position quickly became indefensible.

This was where Katara began to hesitate. Azula had made it plain and clear that her father would be punishing her severely for her poor play. If Katara were to defeat Azula here and now, she would be contributing to the beating that Azula ended up receiving from her father. Katara wasn't sure she could bear contributing to Azula's suffering, even in this indirect way, so she began to purposefully choose poor moves to worsen her own position. Azula immediately realized what Katara was doing, and she was not happy.

"What do you think you're doing?" Azula hissed angrily. "Are you trying to throw the game on purpose?" Katara tried to ignore Azula's anger and made another intentionally bad move, sacrificing one of her Rose tiles. "Stop that immediately, Katara, I'm warning you!" Azula was livid by now. "If you don't stop it, I'm telling the referees!"

Katara gave the other girl a pleading stare, but Azula was having none of it. In fact, she looked really offended. Katara let out a deep sigh. She should have known that Azula would be too proud to accept this sort of unsportsmanlike help. "Sorry, I just-" she began, only to be interrupted as a referee stopped by their table. It appeared that what she had been trying to do was so obvious that Katara ended up receiving a verbal warning from the referee for not trying hard enough and not playing to her best.

She finished the game on the twenty-fifth move, her cheeks covered by an intense blush of embarrassment from her actions. As they rose from the table, Katara was worried that Azula would be so annoyed with her that she would no longer want to hang out together. Fortunately, Azula made no attempt to flee and allowed Katara to catch up with her as they both headed towards the exit.

"I'm sorry, okay?" Katara spoke up, feeling the need to explain herself. "I probably shouldn't have done that, I agree. But Pai Sho is just a game, Azula. What's happening to you is much more important."

"Pai Sho is not just a game, I don't ever want to hear you saying that again," Azula replied, still a little irately. "It's far more than that for me. My father does not allow me many ways to express myself. Pai Sho is pretty much the only thing I have. It's vitally important to me, so please, never disrespect or minimize its importance again."

"Of… of course," Katara stuttered. She hadn't considered this angle at all, but it made sense. Still, the thought that Azula had so little else in her life just made her depressed again. "Once again, I'm very sorry, I did not mean to disrespect you, Azula," she sighed. "I hope we can still hang out."

"We can do that," Azula nodded magnanimously.

"And you still owe me the story about what has caused such a drop in your level of play," Katara reminded the other girl. "But I think we should go somewhere private for that conversation. How about we go back to my room?"

"You're not going to drop this, are you?" Azula sighed. Katara grinned and shook her head. "Ugh. Well, in that case, I insist that we go to the penthouse suite. Might as well make ourselves comfortable because this isn't a conversation I'm looking forward to."

Katara was only too happy to agree.

Next chapter: Azula hangs out with Katara and the Gaang, while Sokka meets a mysterious new friend.

Chapter Text

CW: several inappropriate Water Tribe puns.

Azula was happy to put the conversation with Katara regarding her poor play behind her. They had spent almost an hour in Azula's penthouse suite, Katara trying to squeeze as many details out of her as she could. Azula had mainly stuck with the story about her crashing the car and Ozai being angry with her as a result. The physical abuse and the psychological terror of the past three months truly were the main reasons for her complete lack of readiness to play, so Azula did not see the need to expand her story to include the other reasons why coming to Ba Sing Se had left such an impact upon her.

Katara didn't really need to know all that depressing stuff about Ty Lee's family being evicted, perhaps living somewhere in the vast slums of the Walled City, begging for scraps. Katara didn't need to know about the resentment Azula felt towards the rest of her family in Ba Sing Se. And Katara definitely didn't need to know about Azula freaking out that she would come to Ba Sing Se only to find out that Katara didn't want to be her friend anymore. There was no need to burden Katara with any of this emotional nonsense. She'd just keep it all buried in the pit of her stomach, safe and sound.

It was a little past two in the afternoon when Azula and Katara set out from the hotel to link up with the rest of Katara's friends. Azula was not at all pleased that the place they had chosen for hanging out was one of the Jasmine Dragon teahouses belonging to her uncle Iroh. However, she decided not to make an issue out of it. It wasn't like Iroh himself would be working as a tea sommelier at this particular teahouse. Besides, upon entering the teahouse, Azula was actually pleasantly surprised by the tasteful décor. The interior of the Jasmine Dragon was more like that of an upper class establishment than a mere chain of teahouses.

Katara's friends were already present, talking animatedly while sitting around a large table. Azula suddenly got cold feet from the thought of joining them and the pressure of having to socialize and be polite to so many of her peers at once. She just wasn't sure she could do it without royally pissing someone off. And some of these kids already hated her, no matter what Katara had said. Katara was a bit too naïve and sometimes saw only the best in people, refusing to acknowledge their ugly and twisted sides. Azula earnestly considered turning around and fleeing, but then she felt Katara's hand slipping into hers, giving it a supportive squeeze and a tug to follow her. Azula had no option but to follow her friend. She felt a brief pang of disappointment when Katara released her hand just as they reached the group of her friends.

"Hey everyone! Look who I brought with me!" Katara announced cheerfully. Azula immediately found herself at the center of attention. It made her want to hide behind Katara's not so broad back.

"Hi Azula!" Aang Jetsun, the happy go lucky Air Nation kid waved at her. He looked genuinely glad to see her. Azula never quite knew what to make of Aang. He was obviously very talented, and his style of play was very creative. Once he developed some consistency, Azula knew that Aang would become a huge threat to her. He was just as hard to figure out on a personal level. His cheerfulness and optimism surely had to be faked. Azula had insulted him on a few occasions in the past, and he had always let it slide by in good cheer. "I've been really looking forward to you joining us," he added with an earnest smile.

"Yeah, what Aang said," Sokka nodded at her. Katara's brother was kind of a dumb goofball, but his sister seemed to think the world of him, so Azula had to assume that deep down Sokka was a decent guy. "I have some juicy Water Tribe anecdotes to share with you, too. I remember how you used to like them."

"Is your brother trying to convince me to leave?" Azula asked Katara. The question prompted a great deal of snickering around the table, including from Sokka himself.

"Sokka's sense of humor is definitely an acquired taste," Yue Taqqiq chuckled, smiling at Azula. "It's good to finally have you with us, Miss Scarlet," she added, again eliciting some laughter. Azula assumed it was some kind of an in-joke among the others, but it seemed harmless, so she let it slide. And she was glad to have Yue Taqqiq in the group. She was a classy rich girl and the Taqqiq family was respected, even if they were not on the level of the Nakamuras. Yue was more than acceptable company, a decent player with no obvious strengths or weaknesses. Azula didn't think that Yue was particularly talented, but she still somehow managed to excel in tournament play, possessing the necessary mental toughness.

"Yeah, just ignore Sokka, it's what the rest of us are doing," Toph Beifong spoke up. She was clearly the prickliest of the bunch, and she looked the least excited to see her. Still, Azula was actually glad to have someone not immediately friendly towards her. The welcoming kindness of the others felt almost too much. Toph was keeping things real for Azula, and she was grateful for it. Besides, the young Earth Kingdom girl possessed a rare talent for Pai Sho, and she was unflappable like a solid piece of rock. She was definitely one to watch for the future. "Anyway, let's look at some games, shall we?" Toph said.

"Where should we start?" Aang asked excitedly. "It's been a great day, we all won our games," he blurted out without realization, only then slapping a palm across his face and giving Azula an apologetic stare. "Ugh, I'm such an idiot! Sorry, Azula, I didn't mean to offend."

"Whatever," Azula shrugged. She then followed Katara's lead and finally sat down at the table with the others. "I don't think you want to look at my game with Katara. There's not much to learn from it, other than how not to play Pai Sho," she glanced at Katara to see if the other girl agreed with her.

"Oh yes, we don't want to look at that, it was… disgraceful," Katara sighed. "I've never been warned by a referee before. That was so embarrassing."

"Alright, in that case, I propose we start with my destruction of Chan," Toph suggested. "I'm really proud of that one."

Azula immediately felt much better having heard Toph's words. "You beat Chan?" she smiled, happily imagining how humiliated Chan would have felt after losing to someone three years younger than him. "Consider me impressed," she added.

"Oh, you'll be even more impressed after you've seen just how I beat him," Toph chuckled, retrieving her notations while Aang and Yue set up the Pai Sho board and laid out the tiles.

As the five Pai Sho prodigies around the table began to analyze the game, arguing back and forth about the best solutions, time literally flew by them. When they were finally done with Toph's game against Chan, Azula was shocked to discover that it was already half past four in the afternoon. Being a part of the group was all strange and new to her, but as soon as they had immersed themselves in the game, Azula just seemed to forget all her worries about fitting in with Katara and her friends. They were all bonding over their love for the game, and she was shocked to discover just how much fun she was having in the company that she would normally consider beneath her.

"Are you having fun, Azula?" she blinked at Katara's voice close to her ear. It seemed that they were taking a little break from Pai Sho. Toph had gone to the bathroom, while Sokka and Yue were picking up more tea and snacks for them all. Only Katara and Aang had remained at the table with her.

"Yes," Azula nodded back at her friend. It was still so odd to think of Katara as her friend, but it was also an intoxicating feeling. Her father would surely disapprove of their friendship, but for some reason that just made her more determined to maintain her relationship with Katara. And what about the rest of the group? Were they her friends now as well? It was all so new and exciting to her. "I feel like this is really helping me get back into shape. Especially arguing with Toph," she added with a small smile.

"It's a good way to become great friends with Toph," Aang said, while Katara simply smiled warmly at her. "Toph loves it when people challenge her."

"I've noticed," Azula nodded. "She is very good, almost my equal."

"Oh, don't let her hear that!" Katara laughed, shaking her head.

They sat in silence for a while before Aang piped up again. "Say, Azula? Do you have any pets?" he asked, looking curious.

"You mean house pets like cats or a dog?" She asked. Aang nodded. "No, I'm not allowed to keep pets like that. My father can't stand them and think they're a distraction."

"Of course he would," Katara snarled with a dark look on her face.

"Want to see pictures of my pets?" Aang asked. Without waiting for her reply, he retrieved a couple of pictures from a worn looking wallet and passed the first of them over to Azula.

"It's a filthy, disease ridden macaque," Azula scowled at the picture.

"Oh, you recognized that Momo is a macaque! Most people just say 'oooh what a cute monkey!'" Aang sounded impressed, ignoring how she had just called his pet filthy and disease ridden.

"Well, most people are idiots," Azula shrugged. "It's obviously a macaque."

"Hah, true enough," Aang agreed amiably. "Hey, maybe you'll like my other pet better," he said, showing her the other picture.

Azula's eyes widened as she regarded the picture of Aang sitting astride on a majestic fluffy white animal with impressive horns. "Oh… wow!" she exclaimed in earnest admiration. "Are you riding a great white yak? You have a pet yak?! That is so cool!"

Aang and Katara both grinned widely at her obvious excitement, probably being a little surprised by it. "Yep, that's Appa, my loyal pet yak," Aang explained. "I'm surprised you like him. People usually think Momo is cuter."

"Ugh, like I said, people are stupid," Azula ranted. "Obviously a pet yak is far more impressive. Ungulates are clearly the superior type of animal."

"What's an ungulate?" Sokka asked, returning to the table together with Yue, carrying a tray of teapots and snacks.

"Basically any animal that has hooves," Azula rolled her eyes. Of course Sokka would need an explanation. "If you could see my horses, I think you would all agree that there is no more graceful and majestic animal in the world."

"Ha, why am I not surprised that rich Miss Scarlet here would have her own horses?" Toph laughed, having returned from the bathroom.

"I think it's very sweet," Katara said, a little defensively. "I'm sure they're beautiful, Azula. I love horses myself, but we don't really get them far up north where Sokka and I live."

"I wish I had some pictures with me, but you would absolutely love Goldflake and Innocence," Azula turned to Katara, speaking excitedly. "Goldflake is my polo pony, so she's a little smaller than the average horse, but she's really fast and sturdy. She's also very friendly and good for novice riders who want to get used to a horse. Innocence is a thoroughbred white, which just means that she's actually white instead of grey like most supposedly white horses. She's very tall and has a bit of a temper, so she needs lots and lots of special care and treats. But if she's happy and in a good mood, you should see the kind of barriers I can clear with her! A lot of professional dressage riders would die of envy of my darling Innocence. I miss my horses so much…" Azula finished her lengthy and passionate speech with a sad sigh. "I haven't seen them since last summer."

Only then did Azula become aware that the others had all gone silent, watching her a little oddly. She glanced nervously at Katara. Her Water Tribe friend was smiling at her, looking like she was about to break into tears. "Uh… did I say something wrong?" Azula suddenly became really nervous.

"No… not at all," Katara managed, swallowing heavily. "You simply looked so happy just now, when you were talking about your horses. I haven't seen you like that before."

"Yeah," Sokka nodded in agreement. "I wish all those people who think you're a heartless bitch could have heard you talking about your horses. They would have felt so ashamed of themselves."

"Oh…" Azula could only manage in response. She felt touched by the reaction of the others, but it also made her feel incredibly awkward.

"How did you come up with those names, Goldflake and Innocence?" Yue asked. "There has to be a story behind that."

"There is," Azula nodded, happy for the distraction. "I enjoy reading history books in my spare time, you know, mostly Old Empire stuff. There was this seriously warmongering emperor who kept a pair of dire she-bears as pets, caged near his quarters. They kept them underfed so that they would remain vicious, and any soldier who acted dishonorably or misbehaved in any way, was thrown to these two pet bears to be torn apart. The bears were named Goldflake and Innocence."

"That is an awesome story!" Toph predictably cheered, while the others at the table looked a little disturbed. "Now I want some dire bear pets of my own. Anyway!" she then exclaimed. "Yue, Aang, did you decide which game we're tackling next?" Yue and Aang shook their heads and then began to discuss among themselves whether to analyze Yue's win over Joo Dee or Aang's victory over Kori Morishita.

As they were busy talking things through, Azula found Sokka staring at her with a wicked grin on his face. "So," the Water Tribe boy said with an exaggerated seriousness. "Are you ready to be initiated through the Trial of Sokka Puns?"

"I should have known this was going to happen at some point," Azula groaned.

"So, Azula… do you know how a Water Tribe woman knows she's about to give birth?" Sokka winked at her.

"Oh no, Sokka, that one is terrible," Katara groaned, while Azula just stared blankly at the Water Tribe boy.

"Her water cracks!" Sokka laughed. Azula and Katara exchanged stares and sighed. "Alright, maybe you'll like this next one better. What does a Water Tribe man get after sitting on the ice for too long?"

"I don't know… hemorrhoids?" Azula wondered, almost too afraid to ask.

"Oooh, close! But a Water Tribe man gets polaroids!" Sokka laughed. Katara looked like she was in physical pain by now. The jokes were obviously awful, but somehow the whole occasion was starting to amuse Azula. "Alright, I have another one. It's a bit longer so pay attention. Two Water Tribe men were sitting in a kayak and started to get cold. So they decided to start a fire, but obviously their kayak burned and sank. So what's the moral of this story? You can't have your kayak and heat it too."

"Kayak and heat it too?" Katara repeated, looking puzzled. She clearly wasn't getting it. Azula found it both endearing and amusing. The joke itself was just as awful as one would expect from Sokka, but the whole atmosphere around the table somehow got to Azula and she began to laugh. And then, much to her horror, she found that she couldn't stop laughing, even when the others were starting to look at her oddly. Even worse, she then realized that she was no longer laughing. No, instead tears were spilling down her cheeks in a mighty torrent, an uncontrollable flood of waterworks having gripped Azula for no apparent reason.

Simply willing herself to stop had no effect on her, so Azula felt grateful at Katara for quickly leading her away from the table and towards the privacy of the teahouse's bathroom. Once there, Azula sagged against the wall and simply allowed Katara to hold her until she had cried out her fill and had no more tears to give. Eventually, after what had felt like several long and painful minutes, Azula began to calm down. When Azula finally gathered her bearings, she couldn't help feeling like a complete idiot.

"What happened?" Katara asked, sounding concerned. She still had her arm wrapped around Azula's shoulder. Azula decided that she was in no hurry to dislodge herself from this near embrace. "You seemed so happy and then-"

"I don't know what happened, alright?" Azula replied, a little sharper than she had intended. "Obviously, there's something wrong with me."

"I don't think so," Katara shook her head. "Can you recall what feelings you were experiencing just as it happened?"

Azula paused, trying to remember what she had been thinking about. "I was thinking how strange it felt to be just accepted like that by you and your friends with no questions and no prejudice," Azula replied quietly. "It wasn't a sad or upsetting feeling, though, quite the opposite."

"Oh," was all Katara said. She looked thoughtful and understanding. "I didn't truly comprehend just how overwhelming this all might be for you, Azula. Perhaps it all simply became a little too much for you to take in."

Azula considered this explanation and decided that it was acceptable. She definitely preferred it to the explanation of something being deeply wrong with her. "You're probably right," Azula said. "I just wish it wouldn't have happened in such an embarrassing way. Your friends must be thinking that I'm some kind of unstable psycho."

"They wouldn't think that at all, Azula. Besides, they're your friends too now. And that means they will be nothing but supportive," Katara replied, speaking gently and patiently. "That said, before we return to the table, we definitely need to do something about your looks."

Azula glanced at the mirror, almost getting a fright from what she saw looking back at her. She had cried so much that there were literal dark streaks running down her face, making her look like a badger. The flood of tears mixed with her mascara had also badly stained the front of her dress, but there was little she could do about that now. "Alright, let me get to work," Azula said, retrieving the makeup kit from her purse. It took her a good quarter of an hour to get herself back into presentable shape, Katara remaining alongside her throughout it all. Azula didn't mind it, she was happy for the company, even if she felt reasonably sure that she wasn't going to start crying again.

"Shall we?" Katara asked, offering her a hand when Azula appeared satisfied with her work, stepping away from the mirror. "And don't worry about their reactions. They would never dare to make fun of you, not over this."

"Alright. Thanks, Katara," Azula nodded, taking the other girl's hand. She was certainly thanking Katara a lot lately. There was always a good reason for it, though.

They made their way out of the bathroom and sat down at the table with the others. Azula could see that Katara's friends were trying really hard not to ask any questions, perhaps a little too hard. She started to become anxious, desperate for someone to just speak up and at least say something. Fortunately, Toph would not let her down. "So, I'm sure we're all wondering what the hell just happened," the Earth Kingdom girl stated bluntly. "Also, are you alright, Miss Scarlet?"

"I'm alright," Azula replied, trying to sound confident and almost succeeding. "I don't know what happened exactly, but I would prefer not to speak about it."

"Got it," Toph nodded, also looking like not discussing the matter was her preference. Azula began to sense that Toph was just as fond of discussing Feelings and Emotions as she was. It was yet another point in the Earth Kingdom girl's favor. "We've decided to look at Aang's battle with Kori," Toph pointed at the Pai Sho board. "Shall we?" she asked.

Azula was only too happy to agree, having decided that at this point, getting lost in the world of Pai Sho felt like the safest and most comforting of choices.

As the five others around the table appeared completely immersed in their own world of Pai Sho, Sokka found himself a little restless and bored. This was definitely the downside of hanging out with a group that had this one unifying common interest which Sokka didn't share. He liked all of the other kids as individuals, certainly, but the major reason for his presence here was his girlfriend Yue. Still, when it came to discussing Pai Sho, she became just as passionate as the others, completely forgetting all about him for hours on end.

At first, it had been hard for Sokka not to take this a little personally. Somehow though, he had managed to cope with it and he had become more understanding of what Pai Sho meant to his friends. They all had the talent to one day become professional players and use their talent for the game to secure comfortable living through competitive tournament play. All this practice was an investment in their futures, so Sokka just had to suck up these slight feelings of resentment and abandonment. The moments away from the Pai Sho board were rewarding enough, especially those spent together with Yue.

Yue Taqqiq truly was the girlfriend most guys could only dream about, although not everything about their relationship was perfect. The long distance between them often made Sokka anxious and frustrated, as did Yue's warnings that her father did not approve of them dating. It did not bode well for the future, but Sokka tried not to think about it too much. He simply wanted to enjoy every moment he got to spend with Yue. He knew that once Yue came of age, her father would dangle her inheritance as a leverage to force her into marrying someone 'appropriate', which basically meant 'not Sokka'. Of course, Sokka dreamed of the fairy tale scenario in which Yue would reject this vast fortune in order to be with him, but he realized that this dream wasn't realistic. He wasn't going to ask Yue to make such a choice. Sokka knew that he probably couldn't offer Yue the kind of future which she deserved.

With the others immersed in their fiery debates over Pai Sho, Sokka rose from his seat and began to wander around the teahouse, feeling a little bored. He visited the bathroom and then spent a few minutes conversing with an equally bored looking waitress, but then she had to abandon their conversation in order to attend to some customers. Traffic was slow on this particular day, the unpleasant weather, heavy rain and severe winds outside seeing to it. At some point, however, Sokka became aware of someone looking at him, sitting in a booth by the window. He turned around to notice a lone girl around his age, smiling at him. Wait, was she winking at him now? Sokka looked around to see if perhaps the gesture had been meant for someone else, but there was no one else nearby. The girl by the window was now waving at him, beckoning Sokka to approach.

Sokka looked back at his friends, but they were still transfixed by the Pai Sho board, completely ignorant of him having left the table. So, he decided to walk up to the girl, intrigued by her attempts to get his attention. Sokka had to admit, she was pretty damn cute. She was wearing sporty kind of clothes that matched her athletic build, topped off by a backwards worn baseball cap. Her auburn hair was kept short, and she had blue eyes, but not as clear blue as Yue's or his sister's, more like grayish blue. A smattering of freckles covered her cheeks. "Hey, uh…" Sokka began awkwardly. "Did you want something?"

"Not really," the girl replied with a cheeky grin. "I just saw a cute guy looking bored and thought we could help each other be less bored."

Sokka found himself blushing at the girl's frankness. "I, uh… I'm actually here with my girlfriend," he admitted. "I don't know how she would feel about that."

"Ah, one of those girls at the Pai Sho board?" the auburn-haired girl smirked, looking over to where Sokka's friends were still busy arguing about the correct move or whatever. "Well, she's clearly not paying you enough attention, letting you wander around like that. Other girls might get ideas," she winked at him, making Sokka even more flustered.

"Okay, you're a little weird," he managed. It did feel very flattering, a hot girl calling him cute and showing interest. He couldn't help but feel that Yue was occasionally taking him for granted a little too much.

"Alright, don't worry champ, I'll stop with the flirting," the girl giggled, pointing at the seat opposite to her. "Sit with me for a while? I promise, I won't bite, unless you want me to."

Sokka looked back at his friends again, but they were completely oblivious to his absence. He decided that he might as well humor this weird but attractive stranger. "So, are you a local girl?" he asked. "I'm pretty sure you can tell where I'm from."

"I've always had a weakness for Water Tribe boys," the girl winked at him, clearly incapable to stop with her flirting. Sokka was kinda digging it, though. It wasn't very often that girls would hit on him, not as attractive ones as this girl, anyway. "As for whether I'm a local… well, yes and no. I'm Earth Kingdom, yes, but from the opposite end of the kingdom. Kyoshi Island is my home."

"Oh! Kyoshi Island? My girlfriend Yue went there not too long ago, she said it was an awesome place for a vacation!" Sokka exclaimed.

The girl looked very bemused for some reason. "So… Yue is your girlfriend? As in Yue Taqqiq, the white haired girl over there?" she asked, pointing at the table where Sokka's friends sat.

"Yes, that's her… do you know her?" Sokka asked, feeling surprised.

"I wouldn't say that I know her," the mysterious girl answered mysteriously. "I'm a bit of a Pai Sho fangirl, even though I can barely play myself. So I know most of the best junior players because I've watched all of them play."

"Is that why you're here in Ba Sing Se, to watch the tournament?" Sokka made a guess.

"Correct," the girl nodded. "I'm guessing that you're also hanging around with the spectators while your girlfriend is playing." Sokka nodded at that. "How about we watch the games together?" the girl suggested suddenly. "In a completely platonic buddy way, of course. We wouldn't want Yue to worry. Not that she has to worry, I mean… that girl is stunning, just look at her. I know when I'm outmatched."

"Oh, I wouldn't say you're that outmatched. You have a lot going for yourself, too," Sokka said boldly. He was happy to see the girl blush darkly. It made her appear even cuter.

"Well, thank you, charmer," she grinned. "Let's see if we can spot each other in the stands and hook up on the next match day, shall we?"

"Sounds good," Sokka nodded. It wasn't as if he was agreeing to a date, right? Besides, watching the games all by himself was so boring. Most of the time, Sokka had no idea who was winning when he looked at the large demonstration boards. Maybe this girl could make the viewing experience more tolerable. "Oh, by the way, I'm Sokka Enuaraq, belated introductions and all that."

"Oh?" the girl's eyes brightened with curiosity. "Let me guess, you're the big brother of Katara Enuaraq?"

"Yep, Kat's my little sister," Sokka nodded with a smile.

"How very interesting," the girl noted. She then flashed another smile at him. "I'm Suki, by the way. Suki Arya…"

Next chapter: Ozai arrives in Ba Sing Se…

Chapter Text

Azula was beyond amazed when contemplating her own miraculous transformation over the following few days of the tournament. After suffering three hopeless defeats at that start, putting her in a near insurmountable hole, she had followed it up with a string of three victories in the rounds after the first off-day of the tournament.

At first, Azula had been horrified and outraged about Katara's suggestion to spend the off-day by visiting one of the many amusement parks of Ba Sing Se, instead of using the whole day to prepare for the upcoming games. However, she had been swayed by Katara's arguments that right now additional Pai Sho practice simply would not do Azula any good, and what she needed more than anything was to clear her head and push the reset button on her entire approach to the tournament. Azula had considered Katara's words carefully. The thought of spending an entire day cooped up in the penthouse suite, trying to force herself to get back into her best shape did feel like an exercise of futility. Maybe Katara was right and what she needed was to take her mind off the game for an entire day and simply relax, something she was notoriously terrible at.

Besides, as much as Azula hated to admit this to herself, she also wanted to spend more time with Katara and her friends - but mostly with Katara. Azula was still amazed that Katara's friends even wanted to hang out with her. Azula knew that she wasn't always the easiest person to get along with, and she had been nasty to all of them in the past, and yet they just seemed to let it all slide. Unless they planned to lure Azula into a false sense of security and then spring some trap to completely and utterly humiliate and embarrass her. But… no, that was just her paranoia talking again. Katara in particular just didn't seem to have a deceitful bone in her body, she was weird like that.

In the end, Azula hadn't hated her time at the amusement park. In fact, Azula had actually loved everything about it. Upon their arrival at the amusement part, their group of six had split up over time, Sokka and Yue disappearing first, followed by the two younger kids, Aang and Toph, slipping away as well. Azula had at first assumed that they were dating, but it seemed like that was not the case and they had some kind of weird bond of friendship which meant that the Air Nation kid was dancing to the fiddle of the rich girl from Gaoling. Azula ended up being left alone with Katara, an arrangement that suited her perfectly well. She had waved a handful of hundred yuan bills at the Water Tribe girl, insisting that she become Azula's guide to the lower-class entertainment.

Over the next several hours, the two of them had tried out as many rides and attractions as humanly possible. Azula found the rollercoaster to be her favorite and she wanted to go at least a few times, but Katara was starting to turn a little green in the face after the second go, insisting that she would have to pass on any further rides. Azula had pouted a bit at that, but since going all by herself sounded far less fun, they had simply moved on to the next bit of entertainment. The Ferris wheel was not particularly huge or impressive, so they hadn't done any repeat rides there, instead proceeding to try the bumper cars. Azula thoroughly enjoyed this activity because unlike Katara, she already had her driver's license and found herself like fish in the water when sitting in the bumper car. They spent more than half an hour of Azula terrorizing the other kids (and Katara), before her frustrated guide managed to persuade Azula to move on.

There were other enjoyable attractions at the amusement park, Azula having particularly fond memories of the haunted house. She had found it so hilariously un-scary that she had laughed all the way through the experience. She couldn't understand how Katara could possibly get spooked by these terrible props including fake blood and severed heads that barely looked human. That said, the way Katara had clung to her throughout the whole thing had been kind of fun and it had made Azula a little sad when they eventually emerged from the haunted house.

Later in the afternoon, Azula had created a little bit of stir at the shooting gallery. Katara had challenged her to win a prize, and Azula had immediately accepted said challenge. She had some very rudimentary firearms training and she felt quite confident about her marksmanship. However, along the way, Azula must have somehow misunderstood the purpose of this particular attraction. Why was that lower-class peasant wandering about at the back of the stall unless he was the target she was supposed to hit, right? And it had been such a perfect shot, too, hitting the man straight in the face. Azula had been rather taken aback when the bleeding commoner had started to scream at her angrily, threatening to call the police. Katara had looked horrified, and so Azula had thrown several hundred yuan bills at the bleeding man and they had quickly made themselves scarce.

Katara had been rather shaken up by Azula's gaffe with the air rifle, and for a while Azula had been deeply worried that Katara was mad at her. Fortunately, after she had made an effort trying to explain herself, Katara had started to laugh and then hugged her for some weird reason, but Azula had decided not to complain. Exhausted from all the attractions, they had then wandered off in search of food. That had been an experience in itself. While the peasant food looked horrible and unhealthy, Azula had been forced to admit that it smelled and tasted absolutely divine. Katara had warned her to be careful with eating too much, especially since she was not used to this sort of food, but Azula just couldn't stop herself because everything was so damn good, even if it was super greasy and kind of disgusting at the same time. Sticky chicken and waffles, doughnuts, corn on the cob, deep fried Oreos, Azula just had to try everything, finally making the crucial mistake of eating too much of something called the funnel cake.

Their day at the amusement park had then ended with Azula once again throwing up, this time at a dirty and disgusting amusement park toilet, with Katara being the dependable and trustworthy friend that she was, holding back her hair while Azula emptied the contents of her stomach. Even if the day had ended on a relative low, Azula had absolutely loved the entire experience. She was amazed that lower-class people could actually have this much fun, it was completely eye-opening for her. Obviously, this wouldn't have been nearly as much fun without Katara and her friends, so Azula suspected that perhaps it was more the company and less the attractions that had made the day so great.

All in all, Katara had been proven correct and the day at the amusement park had helped Azula relax and take her mind off the issues plaguing her. When she faced Kori Morishita at the Pai Sho board the next day, it was clear that the girl from Yu Dao expected to encounter the demoralized Azula Nakamura of the first three rounds. Kori was in for a rude awakening as Azula absolutely blitzed her in less than twenty moves. She was back with a vengeance, confirming it with two more victories over Ghashiun al-Alawi and Aang Jetsun in the following rounds.

With the tournament a little over the equator, six rounds of eleven played, Azula was absolutely astonished to realize that despite the horrible start she had made, she wasn't out of the running for the tournament win. It was still rather unlikely to happen, but there was a chance and the reason for it was that nobody had managed to take a firm control of the tournament. Everybody was dropping points left and right, including the main favorites. After six rounds, there were four players in the lead with four points each, Katara, Yue, Toph and that damn asshole Chan. Ruon-Jian was half a point behind the four leaders, and after him came the next group on three points, including Azula herself, but also Aang and Teo. There was still everything to play for, and with her level of play improving and confidence surging, Azula did not feel as terrified when she spotted her father and Zhao in the spectator stands following her Round 6 victory over Aang. Of course, she expected her father to be livid with her start to the tournament, but the competition wasn't over and she still had a chance to win the gold medal. She knew that Ozai would not risk dishing out his tough love now, in the middle of the tournament. No, he would wait either until the end of the tournament or until they returned to Caldera City, but if she were to actually win the whole thing, she might be able to escape the punishment altogether.

Of course, Ozai's arrival also meant that her time hanging out with Katara and her friends at the Jasmine Dragon was over. This depressed Azula quite a bit, but at least she had been able to exchange a few words with Katara after they had finished their games, the two agreeing to meet up in Katara's hotel room in the evening, once Azula had managed to escape from her father's attentions. That Katara was genuinely looking forward to spending more time with her both surprised and pleased Azula a great deal.

So, a few hours after the matches of Round 6 had finished, Azula found herself sitting in a posh Upper Ring restaurant together with her father and his right hand man, Zhao Sakamoto, trying to figure out just in how much trouble she was in. Ever since his arrival, Ozai had barely spoken a word to her. That was probably not a good sign and meant that her father was seething inside. However, none of his anger appeared to be showing in his face and he had been completely dispassionate when exchanging a few phrases with her. The lack of reaction from Ozai was making Azula more and more nervous as time ticked by.

Indeed, once they had ordered and were waiting for their food to be delivered, Ozai mostly seemed to focus on talking with Zhao, discussing the details of their recent business trip, a conversation that went right over Azula's head. If anything, Zhao seemed to be paying her more attention than her father was, and as always, it was attention that Azula felt she could really do without. At least in the presence of her father, Zhao did not dare to be as creepy as he had often been in the past.

Once the food had been delivered and they were already halfway through their meals, Ozai finally spoke up to address her, just when Azula had already breathed an internal sigh of relief and relaxed, thinking that she gotten off scot-free. "Zhao and I have been looking at your schedule and the tournament standings," Ozai began, speaking almost casually. Azula immediately stopped chewing on her perfectly seared duck breast and began to listen attentively, her heart rate rising steadily. "Zhao, explain what we discussed to my daughter."

"It's really quite simple," Zhao nodded, turning towards Azula. "First, you have to win all of your remaining games. Since you are only trailing by a single point, it's very fortunate that you still have to play all of those who are currently ahead of you in the standings, with the exception of the Enuaraq girl. As for the others, the two Fire Nation lads, Beifong and Taqqiq, defeating them also means overtaking them in the standings. Like I said, it's simple."

"But Katara has a very easy final stretch," Azula argued. "All of her remaining opponents are much weaker players than she is. I can't do anything about that, can I?"

"Well, you better hope that she stumbles at some point," Ozai pointed out with a meaningful stare. "A lot will depend on it. I did not expect you to win the tournament last year, but this and the following year are yours to lose. I was just about ready to forgive and forget the incident with your car. You don't want to get on my bad side again by finishing in any other position than the top of the podium."

Azula shuddered at her father's threatening statement. She wondered if any of Katara's remaining opponents could cause an upset. Teo probably had the best chance. He'd been having a very good tournament so far. Kori Morishita was playing better than Azula could remember her play, too. The rest of Katara's opponents were rather hopeless, however.

There was another option, however, but Azula was reluctant to even think about it. Katara was such a bleeding heart that she had been willing to throw her game with Azula, because she had wanted to save Azula from her father's wrath. But would she do it against one of her remaining opponents if Azula asked her to, and if she explained what was in store for her if she failed to finish first? Would Katara do it when the title of a world champion was at stake? Did Azula have any right to even ask it? No, she really didn't. It hurt for Azula to admit, but Katara actually deserved the title more than she did, at least this year. No, she wasn't going to even mention any of this to her Water Tribe friend. Azula would just let things play out and then deal with the consequences whatever those might be.

"I know I can do it," Azula stated, trying to sound confident. She did feel a little shaken, however, and was in a dire need to recompose herself and steady her nerves. "May I be excused for a moment?" she looked up at her father, asking for his permission. Ozai frowned and shrugged at the request. Azula took it as a grudging permission and rose to make her way to the nearby bathroom. Much to her irritation, it was occupied and Azula was forced to stand near the doors and wait.

Unfortunately, she had not chosen the best place where to stand, behind a pillar which blocked her from the view of the waiters as they traversed back and forth between the dining hall and the kitchens. One of the waiters almost crashed into her with a full tray of dirty dishes, just barely managing to avoid her at the last moment. "Not the best place to stand around, cutie. I could have really hurt you and that would be a crying shame," the waiter, a rather handsome older boy told her. Azula did a double take at being called a 'cutie', but it was done so casually that it did not feel at all offensive. It also helped that the boy in question was kind of cute himself, what with his slightly disheveled mop of dark hair and a mischievous look in his eyes.

"Sorry," was all that Azula could think of, blushing darkly as the waiter winked at her and hurried away, carrying his tray of dirty dishes.

Azula was still waiting for the bathroom to become vacant, when the waiter returned, this time stopping to stand next to her, a grin on his lips. "Sorry," he smirked, pointing at the bathroom doors. "I think someone is getting a little sick in there." His voice dropped down to a whisper. "I thought that lobster was a bit dodgy. Please tell me you didn't have the lobster."

"No, I had duck," Azula shook her head. Zhao had ordered lobster. Azula found herself grinning at the mental image of Zhao being sick all over the bathroom floor.

"Good choice, the duck is perfection itself," the strapping boy chuckled at her. "So, what's a stunning Fire Nation babe such as yourself doing in this fair city?"

"Uh, I'm just accompanying my father," Azula managed awkwardly. She had learned that saying that she was a Pai Sho prodigy could be a bit of a turn off for the boys. It made them suspicious of her being a boring bookworm and generally too smart and a lot of boys apparently didn't like that. The key to successfully dating boys seemed to be dumbing yourself way down.

"Sounds dull," her new acquaintance winked at her again. "I doubt your old man knows all about the best attractions of Ba Sing Se. When it comes to being the best guide to all the fun there is to have in the Walled City, there's nobody better than me."

"Is that an offer-" she said, finally noticing the name tag on the boy's uniform, as well as the caption 'ask me for a free fortune cookie' embroidered under the tag. "Jet? Also, what about those fortune cookies? How come I never got one?" she grinned.

"I'm glad you asked!" Jet smiled, retrieving a fortune cookie and passing it over to her. Azula cracked it open and pulled out the little piece of paper. The words on it said 'You will go on a date with a handsome waiter'. Azula immediately blushed beet red.

"That's very smooth," she had to admit, feeling impressed with Jet's moves.

"I'm glad you noticed," Jet grinned. "So, how about it? Let me show you the sights of Ba Sing Se, babe."

"I prefer Azula instead of babe," she replied, though something in this boy's attitude was stopping her from becoming annoyed with him. He was just so natural at being flirty in a way that reminded Azula of Zirin.

"Azula, a beautiful name," Jet's smile broadened. "But you haven't answered my question. I'd love to go out with you, Azula."

Honestly, Azula was tempted. She liked the way her name rolled off his tongue, so sensually. And she had been desperate to find a boy to date, just to see what it would be like. Here was someone who didn't seem to be a creepy fuck like Chan or Ruon-Jian. Unfortunately, the timing of meeting Jet couldn't have been worse, coinciding with her father's return. Azula wasn't sure if she could manage to escape her father's presence for long enough to go on an actual date. Also, she had been away from the table for a suspiciously long time, and with horror, Azula realized that Zhao had already gotten up from the table to come and look for her.

"Maybe some other time, Jet," Azula quickly excused herself, walking away from the disappointed looking boy. She hadn't actually needed to use the bathroom, if only to escape the presence of Ozai and Zhao for a while, but the conversation with Jet had distracted her and she felt ready to face her father yet again.

"Who was that boy?" Ozai asked as soon as she had sat down. His brow was creased with a deeply set frown. "Was he bothering you?"

Damn it, how the fuck does he keep noticing everything. I can't slip anything past him. Azula cursed inwardly. "No, he was just being friendly," Azula replied, trying to sound casual.

"I have a feeling they were being a little bit too friendly if you know what I mean," Zhao gave Ozai a meaningful stare. Shut up, Zhao! Azula wanted to scream.

"Do we need to have another conversation about boys, Azula?" Ozai asked with a dangerous glint in his eye.

"We don't," Azula shook her head. She was feeling pretty annoyed by now, reaching the point where her annoyance was starting to overwhelm her fear of Ozai. "I just don't think it's reasonable to expect me not to interact with one half of the entire population of humankind."

"It's not reasonable, you say," Ozai smirked. "Well. I'm sure we'll soon be having another conversation about what is reasonable and what isn't. But that will have to wait. Finish your meal so that we can leave," her father nodded at the by now cold remains of the duck breast on her plate. It still tasted delicious despite being cold, so Azula quickly finished up and the three of them then left the restaurant. Azula's annoyance grew when she noticed that Ozai deliberately left no tip, perhaps as a result of what he thought was one of the staff accosting his property, namely, his daughter.

Once outside the restaurant, Zhao and Azula got into the limo while Ozai remained outside, exchanging a few words with one of his thuggish looking bodyguards. The square-jawed yokel in a dark suit and matching sunglasses walked back inside the restaurant and returned a minute later, at which point Ozai finally seemed to be satisfied, giving the driver a sign to take them back to the hotel.

"Why did you send that thug back into the restaurant?" Azula blurted out, perhaps unwisely. "Did you ask him to threaten Jet?"

"Jet?" Ozai narrowed his eyes at her.

"Yes, the waiter. I can read nametags, you know," Azula replied. If she hadn't been so irritated, she probably would have been horrified at the tone that she was using with her father.

"Azula, you don't seem to understand that you're threading dangerous ground here," Ozai reached out and grabbed her wrist. "Stop testing my patience, daughter," he said, squeezing down hard on her wrist, releasing it only when Azula cried out in pain.

Azula spent the rest of the way back to the hotel cradling her sore wrist, stubbornly looking outside the limo window just so that her father and Zhao couldn't see the tears that were welling up in her eyes.

It wasn't until very late in the evening, close to 10pm, that Azula finally managed to extract herself from the company of her father and Zhao, tormenting her with unhelpful Pai Sho drills. Azula had endured it all in obedient silence. She didn't think that her father would react well to her stating that the key to her improved performance was relaxation and reduction of stress. Ozai would probably shout at her for being stupid, even if Katara's method of preparation had already helped Azula a great deal.

Leaving the penthouse suite to take the elevator down to Katara's floor, Azula still felt understandably fearful. She wouldn't put it past her father to actually check whether she was back in her room at some point during the evening. If Ozai discovered her absence, he would be really mad. And she definitely didn't want to invoke her father's anger any more than she already had. Ozai was already very displeased with her behavior and attitude. Azula's still sore wrist was a stark reminder of Ozai's displeasure, and yet, despite the danger, she craved Katara's company and decided that spending time with her new friend was worth the risk.

Katara promptly answered the knock on her doors, smiling broadly as she let Azula inside. Katara had already changed into her pajamas, and it looked as if she was fresh out of shower. Katara's hair was still damp and missing the familiar loops, carrying a powerful but not overwhelming lavender fragrance that Azula had come to associate with the Water Tribe girl. Overall, Katara just looked so damn adorable. Azula had never been comfortable showing physical affection. In fact, she tended to actively avoid it with most people. It was different with Katara, though. Azula couldn't deny that she enjoyed being hugged by Katara. She swore that one day she would overcome her awkwardness and be the one to initiate the hug herself.

"How did it go with your father?" Katara immediately asked as they perched down on her bed.

Azula frowned at the question. She supposed she couldn't blame Katara for asking. She knew that she should have expected the question. For some reason, Katara had taken it upon herself to genuinely care about what was going on in Azula's life. And while on one hand, the feeling of someone actually giving a damn about her was weirdly pleasant, opening up and sharing all the ugliness of her life and her own thoughts was not something that Azula was looking forward to. She didn't really want to burden Katara with all that awful stuff.

"It wasn't as bad as I feared," she answered, a little evasively.

"Was he very angry with you?" Katara wasn't going to give up easily, of course.

"He certainly wasn't pleased," Azula shrugged. "But I can still make things right."

"He expects you to win the tournament, doesn't he?" Katara asked. Azula nodded. Katara frowned, looking thoughtful. Azula immediately realized where the other girl's thoughts had wandered off to.

"I need you to promise me something, Katara," Azula spoke up, giving her friend a severe stare. "I want you to promise that you're not going to try and pull the sort of crap that you tried to pull in our game. That sort of help is beneath me, do you understand? You would be insulting me. I couldn't be friends with someone who does things like that."

"I wasn't thinking about that at all," Katara muttered. She was clearly lying and the redness of her cheeks confirmed it.

"You were, and I appreciate the thought behind it, but I'm telling you in no uncertain terms. Don't throw any games for my sake, I'm being very serious here," Azula insisted.

"Alright, fine," Katara relented with a sigh. "I won't do it. You understand why I would want to do it, right? What your father is doing-"

"I'm sorry, but can we not talk about my father?" Azula spoke up sharply, interrupting her friend. "It's stressing me out. And you said that I should relax more, right?"

"That's true," Katara admitted, a little reluctantly. It was touching how the other girl thought that Azula's issues with her father could somehow be resolved by talking. It was cute, but so very naïve. "So, what else would you like to talk about? Did anything else happen?"

Azula thought for a moment whether to tell Katara about her encounter with Jet, the cute waiter at the restaurant, but she then decided against it. Azula was very curious about what had happened at the restaurant after they had left and Ozai had sent in one of his thugs to threaten Jet. Azula had learned that Ozai and Zhao were scheduled to attend a soiree for rich fat cats tomorrow evening, so she was harboring a plan to at some point sneak out of the hotel and head over to the restaurant to see if she could talk some more with the handsome Earth Kingdom boy. But it also meant that Azula wouldn't be spending time with Katara and her friends, and perhaps her new friend didn't need to know that Azula was ditching her in order to see some boy.

"No, I can't think of anything, really," Azula shrugged. She pointed at the TV set fastened to the wall opposite to the bed. "Why don't we just watch something together?" she suggested, allowing a yawn to escape her lips. "It's been an exhausting day. Too much Pai Sho practice, if you ask me."

Katara sighed and walked up to the TV set to switch it on, starting to turn the knob to switch between stations. "Any preferences?" she asked.

"Not really," Azula shrugged. It was the truth, she was here just for the company. Everything about Katara was so soothing. She needed this, it was like a balm to soothe her wounds. "I might fall asleep at some point, though. I'll need you to wake me up if I do."

"You could just stay here for the night," Katara said. She then blushed slightly, as if she had said something inappropriate. "Like a sleepover thing, I mean. Only this time with less vomiting in the morning."

"Hah, you just had to remind me of that, didn't you," Azula rolled her eyes. "I don't want to risk a sleepover, though," she sighed. It sounded kind of fun. "My father will probably check up on me at some point and will call for a nationwide search if I'm not back in my room."

"Control freak," Katara muttered angrily. Azula decided to ignore her. Lately, Azula's utter and unquestioned devotion to her father had started to crumble ever so slightly. It had started with learning the truth about the fate of Ty Lee and her family, and it had been eroding ever since. The hardships of the past few months following her car accident had left their toll as well. The amount of physical punishment and psychological terror seemed disproportionate to what Azula saw as a small transgression. Ozai, however, took endangering of his most valuable property (and by that Azula didn't mean the car, she meant herself – which was exactly what she was, her father's prized property) very seriously and wanted to teach her a lesson to never endanger herself again. And still, despite all of her growing and bubbling resentment towards her father, she could not tolerate others openly disrespecting Ozai, even if Katara probably had a point.

"Wait, go back to the previous channel," Azula said suddenly.

Katara turned the knob counter-clockwise, switching back to the previous channel. "I didn't think this looked exciting," she shrugged. "It's just some shabby looking character in a dirty raincoat."

"I think this is a pilot for a new crime series," Azula replied. "I've been meaning to check it out. That shabby looking character in a dirty raincoat is actually a very bright and persistent detective."

"You're kidding me! He doesn't look like a detective at all. In fact, he looks really silly," Katara giggled, returning to the bed and settling in next to Azula.

"Ah, but that is what supposedly makes him so effective," Azula argued. "It makes the suspects underestimate him. Let's just watch and you'll see."

"You like watching crime shows?" Katara asked after they had been watching for a while in silence.

"They can be fun when the mood strikes me, but most of them are just too dumb for me," Azula replied. "This one definitely has promise, though."

"I feel the same," Katara said. "Gran-Gran doesn't like them, though. She prefers more… wholesome entertainment. Like 'Days of Our Lives' and 'Coronation Street'."

"But those are awful!" Azula exclaimed.

"I know," Katara sighed. "But it's Gran-Gran. After everything she has done for me and Sokka ever since our mother left us… well, I just don't have the heart to argue with my grandmother about what to watch on the TV."

Azula made a mental note about what Katara had said about her mother, but she decided not to pry just now. It was late and she was sleepy and unfocused. It seemed like there was a story behind Katara's words, but it was probably best left for another time. Azula instead decided to focus on the investigation of Lt. Columbo on the screen… only to be shaken awake some time later, as the credits were already rolling. "Didn't I tell you to wake me up if I fell asleep?" Azula snapped.

"Sorry," Katara sounded genuinely apologetic. "I was so immersed in the story that I failed to notice you had passed out. You were right, this was really good. Sorry you missed it…"

"Well, it doesn't matter. I'll just catch a rerun sometime later," Azula shrugged. "But I should probably return to my room before I fall asleep on my feet," she said, reluctantly climbing out of the bed, Katara following her up to the doors.

"Will I see you tomorrow?" Katara asked hopefully. "Yue and I have made some plans for the group. It would be great to have you with us."

Azula's heart sank a little, knowing that she was about to disappoint Katara. "Sorry… I've no idea what my father's plans are for tomorrow, but I expect I'll be busy," Azula said, once again deciding not to mention her own plans involving Jet. "I could try to stop by in the evening, though. If that's alright," she added hesitantly.

"Of course, it's alright," Katara smiled at her.

"Or, you could come up to the penthouse, that might be even more fun," Azula suggested. "Though you might have to be quick about hiding in a wardrobe in case my father decides to check up on me."

"Right," Katara rolled her eyes. The smile she then gave Azula was a little somber. "Goodnight, Azula," she said, leaning in to briefly hug her friend.

"Goodnight, Katara," Azula reciprocated the smile before turning to walk away.

Next chapter: Azula attempts the whole dating a boy thing with Jet. There might be complications.

Chapter Text

CW: Attempt of self-imposed heteronormativity, violent assault.

On the second off-day of the tournament, Azula had breakfast together with her father and Zhao. She was relieved about being largely ignored by her father and his right hand man, the two of them discussing some dodgy business scheme. Azula found herself unable to follow their conversation, already busy plotting her own scheme to somehow escape Ozai's attention and leave the hotel. After the breakfast, her father went up to the penthouse suite with her, but instead of staying for more Pai Sho drills he simply left her with the latest copy of The Harmony Ring (the most popular of the few Pai Sho magazines). Ozai had marked down several games that he wanted Azula to spend her day analyzing, and then he had left again, telling his daughter that he would check up on her progress before leaving for the business soiree in the evening.

Azula spent a brief while surveying the relevant games and making some quick notations. The kind of studying that Ozai expected of her was very time consuming and would take her up to four hours, if not more. Still, Azula reckoned that she could slip out of the hotel and get back in time to still manage to complete her father's task. Having decided on her course of action, Azula did her hair and makeup before slipping into one of her leather jumpsuits. She then took the elevator down to the lobby, hoping that she wouldn't accidentally run into her father or Zhao. Her father had given her a task which meant that she didn't have a good reason to be wandering about.

She decided to take a cab to the restaurant they had dined at the previous day. It was around midday when Azula arrived at the restaurant. It was Monday and the restaurant was clearly not serving customers this early in the day, but the front door was not locked and Azula decided to enter anyway, hoping that perhaps Jet would be around.

Some members of the staff were indeed on the premises, doing some light cleaning work, but mostly just goofing around. One of the waitresses sauntered up to Azula and gave her an appreciative look, clearly admiring her outfit. "Hey honey, we're not serving lunch on Mondays," the girl stated in a silky, flirty voice. "Although it is a real shame to turn you away."

Azula blushed slightly. "Uh, I was actually hoping to find one of the waiters who was here yesterday," she stammered. "He goes by the name of Jet."

"Ah, you're one of Jet's girls," the face of the waitress fell slightly. "Well, that figures."

One of Jet's girls? What does that even mean? Ugh, whatever, it's not like I'm angling for something serious. I just want to have a bit of fun with a handsome boy, that's not too much to ask for, is it? "So, is he in today or not?" Azula did not relent.

"It's his day off," the waitress replied. "Poor bastard probably needs it after what happened yesterday."

"What did happen yesterday?" Azula asked. She felt herself becoming really tense and nervous.

"Just some minor altercation, think nothing of it," the other girl shrugged. "Anyway, like I said, Jet's not coming in today."

"Right," Azula frowned. "I don't suppose you could give me his phone number? Or even better, his home address?"

"Good grief, what is it about this guy that makes all the girls so desperate to get into his pants," the waitress laughed aloud, making Azula's face go beet red. "Well, whatever it is, he should bottle and sell it. Easiest million ever made."

Azula sighed, pulling out her wallet and retrieving a fifty yuan note, pressing it into the palm of the grinning waitress. "Can you help me or not, miss?" she asked, urging herself to remain polite.

"I can help you, sure," the girl immediately became very cooperative, pulling out her little notebook and pen, starting to write down the address. "You know, Jet's forwarding me a part of his tips for every hot chick I hook him up with. I reckon you'll be good enough for another fifty from him."

"Uh… well, good for you," Azula rolled her eyes, snatching the note with the address from the waitress' hand and quickly turning around before the other girl had a chance to embarrass her further.

Once outside the restaurant, Azula quickly flagged down another cab and read the address to the driver. As she had feared, the destination was deep inside the Lower Ring of Ba Sing Se, although fortunately not in the seediest of its sub-districts. Still, in her leather jumpsuit and designer sunglasses, Azula stuck out like a sore thumb amongst the dwellers of the Lower Ring. Realizing that there was a very real danger of getting mugged if she stuck around for too long, Azula asked the cab driver to wait for her as she proceeded to enter the slightly dilapidated brownstone as indicated by the waitress' note.

The look inside the house was even less appealing than the look from outside. There was a foul smelling puddle of obvious origins at the bottom of the stairs. The paint on the walls was peeling off in large sheets. A part of the banister was broken, seemingly for years, and never replaced. Azula did not understand how poor people could live in such terrible conditions. Why didn't they just move somewhere more pleasant? In any case, she was hoping to conduct her business as quickly as possible and then get out of here.

Azula quickly climbed the stairs up to the third floor and then located the doors to apartment 11A. The button for the doorbell had fallen out a long time ago, and a bit of red tape was plastered over it, leaving her with no other option than to knock on the door. She didn't have to wait long for the doors to be opened by Jet himself. He was wearing casual ripped jeans and a slightly smudged grey sleeveless shirt. As soon as Azula looked up and into his face, she took a step back with a startled gasp. Jet was sporting a rather impressive shiner surrounding his left eye.

"What on earth happened to you?" she exclaimed, even if she already knew the answer. What the hell, father? You asked your thug to punch a guy in the face just for talking to me? This is so fucked up!

"I've no idea, a guy just showed up and sucker-punched me," Jet shrugged. He didn't look too bothered. In fact, he was acting as if that sort of thing happened to him with certain regularity. "I'm more interested in finding out what you're doing here, Azula. I wasn't sure if I was going to see you again after yesterday. I'm delighted to have been proven wrong."

Curiously, it didn't seem as if Jet had made the connection between making a pass at her and then getting punched in the face by one of Ozai's bodyguards. Perhaps it was not surprising. He couldn't have known that the thug was employed by her father. Jet had probably assumed that it was some jealous ex-boyfriend of one of his girls, or simply a result of whatever sort of sordid web of affairs he was carrying on. But Azula still felt really bad about Jet getting punched in the face. After all, it had happened because of her. Maybe she could somehow make it up to him.

"Well, I couldn't put our conversation out of my mind, so I stopped at the restaurant and asked for your address," Azula confessed, blushing lightly. "Besides, there was that fortune cookie, remember? I guess I can't argue with what it told me to do, right?"

Jet chuckled softly, looking amused. "I guess not," he winked at her. "I'd love to take you out on a date, Azula. Are you free now?" Jet asked.

"No, I have to run some errands first," Azula lied quickly. "But I should be free after eight in the evening."

"That sounds perfect," Jet grinned. "How would you feel about a night at the movies? Or at least, a night that begins at the movies?" he added with another wink. "After all, I said I was going to show you all the fun there is to be had in Ba Sing Se."

"I like what I'm hearing," Azula smiled. "Where should we meet up?"

"The Blackstone Movie Theater, any time between eight and half-past," Jet replied. "Ever seen 'Psycho'?" Azula shook her head. "Oh, you're going to love it," he chuckled. Honestly, it sounded like the kind of movie that boys took girls to so that they would get scared and want to be hugged and feel protected, leading to lots and lots of making out. And that was exactly what Azula wanted to experience, so the choice of film seemed perfect to her.

"Alright, then I guess I'll see you in the evening," Azula said. She enjoyed Jet's company, but she didn't necessarily want to spend more time in these depressing surroundings. The smell in the hallway was pretty awful, a mix of rot and mildew.

"I would ask you to come in, but I have my extended family over," Jet said apologetically, pointing towards his apartment. Azula could vaguely make out the voices of some younger kids, arguing passionately. In truth, Azula wasn't too keen on entering Jet's apartment. It seemed a little on the filthy side. His servants were probably slacking off. Oh wait, poor people don't have servants. He probably has to do all the cleaning himself. Goodness, that has to be horrible, no wonder the apartment is in such a state.

"It's alright," Azula quickly excused herself, turning around to leave. "Looking forward to the evening… Jet," she added with a sultry smile as she looked back over her shoulder.

"I can't wait, Azula," Jet winked back at her as she quickly ran down the stairs and jumped into the taxi, seeking to flee the Lower Ring as quickly as possible.

After returning to the hotel, Azula tried to put all the distractions aside in order to focus on her father's task. The games he had asked her to disseminate were lengthy and complicated, and Azula ended up skipping dinner just so that she could finish her father's task in time. Ozai had come up to her room a little past six in the evening and they had gone through her notes together. Despite criticizing her for sloppiness in some places, her father had remained satisfied with her overall effort. He had then left again around half past seven, graciously allowing Azula to watch some TV on the condition that she was in bed and sleeping by ten in the evening.

As soon as Ozai had left, Azula began to prepare for her date. She didn't want to wear anything that exuded too much self-confidence. Cute, vapid and easy-going was the order of the day. Azula ended up settling on a cute black collar mini dress, fishnet stockings and matching black go-go boots. It was a few minutes past eight when she finally snuck out of the hotel and found a cab to take her downtown to the Blackstone Movie Theater.

Jet was already waiting for her outside the theater, having a smoke as he leaned casually against a wall. He was wearing a pair of bell bottom jeans and a black leather jacket thrown over a white shirt underneath. Azula had to admit that Jet cleaned up rather nicely when he put in the effort. She also enjoyed the way his eyes lit up in appreciation when he spotted her walking towards him. "Whoa, looking gorgeous, babe," he grinned at Azula, pulling her close for a kiss on the cheek. Azula winced a little at the overpowering smell of cheep tobacco. She was never particularly fond of Ozai and Zhao smoking like chimneys, but at least they were puffing expensive cigars. In comparison, Jet absolutely reeked, but Azula tried her best to ignore it.

"Thanks, you're not looking too bad yourself," Azula smiled back at him. "You've got us the tickets already?" she asked, nodding at the entrance to the theater.

"Obviously, and the best back row seats, too," Jet winked at her, waving the tickets around as they proceeded to enter the theater. Azula hoped that since this seemed like a fairly respectable downtown establishment, it would have some standards when it came to cleanliness. She had heard some horror stories from the girls at Li and Lo's about the back rows in cheap ass theaters and how the seats there were covered with certain disgusting male fluids. As far as she was concerned, that sort of grossness was not going to take place on this date.

Once they were in their seats and the movie began, Jet's arm predictably slipped around her shoulders. Azula didn't mind it at all, leaning in against him, while all the time analyzing how it made her feel. So far so good, was the verdict. Azula soon found herself completely enthralled by the movie, so much so that she was watching the gruesome murder of Marion Crane in avid rapture, completely forgetting to act like a frightened schoolgirl. It was only the cries and gasps of the other girls in the theater that reminded Azula that she was supposed to cling more tightly to Jet for comfort which he was more than happy to provide, together with a few more kisses on the cheek.

The movie was about halfway in when Jet rose and excused himself. "Sorry, babe, but I have to take a leak," he apologized with a goofy grin. "Be right back. Want me to bring some popcorn and a soda for you?"

"That would be nice, thank you," Azula smiled at him. She hadn't eaten since breakfast and she was starting to feel a little nauseous by now.

"Anything for you, babe," Jet winked at her before boldly leaning in and kissing her on the lips. He then walked away, leaving Azula wondering how she felt about the kiss.

Honestly, it didn't feel as bad as she had feared it would be. It was definitely different from both Ty Lee and Zirin. Comparing this kiss to her making out with Ty Lee didn't really make much sense because they had been inexperienced thirteen year olds back then. Making out had been a sloppy and awkward mess, even if it had felt immensely fun and enjoyable at the same time. When compared with Zirin, kissing Jet felt a little lacking. Azula couldn't deny that for some reason she felt some kind of inner tension and slight lack of comfort with Jet. She could probably get around it and endure these sensations, if that was what it took for her to be seen as straight and normal. At the same time, it made Azula wonder if the fear she felt towards her father was spilling over and seeping into the relationships she tried to forge with other men.

Ozai had pretty much ensured that the only men in Azula's life were him and Zhao. She feared her father and despised Zhao. These were the only feelings she associated towards the men in her life. Ozai was violently opposed to the possibility of her dating other girls. But at the same time, had he completely poisoned the well when it came to Azula's attitude towards men in general? Azula had no answer to this question, at least not yet. All Azula knew was that she could never uphold a relationship with a guy, even a pretend one, if it carried even a fraction of the fear and anxiety that was ingrained in her relationship with her father. Maybe Katara had been right when they had had that argument a year ago. Maybe she was a filthy fucking lesbian and she just needed to accept that about herself.

Left alone with her thoughts, Azula realized that she had missed a good chunk of the movie. She also realized that Jet had been missing for several minutes by now, far longer than a visit to the bathroom and picking up some popcorn and soda should take. Azula decided to give him a little more time before starting to worry that he had bailed on her, which seemed a little odd after they had shared a tender kiss.

Five more minutes later, there was still no sign of Jet and Azula was becoming a little nervous. While the movie was so engrossing that she would have been happy to finish watching it, Jet or no Jet, Azula still wanted to know whether she had been ditched or not. So, she rose from the seat and made her way out into the large foyer of the theater. Her attention was immediately attracted by a massive commotion outside. A crowd had gathered by the entrance into the theater, and she could see the flashing lights of an ambulance and a police vehicle.

Feeling curious, Azula decided to investigate. Something deep within the Fire Nation girl urged her to stay away, but she found herself overcome by sheer morbid curiosity. She began to push through the crowd until she could take a better look at what was going on. The paramedics had just finished working on someone and were strapping them onto a stretcher for safe transportation. Hidden by protective covering and the medics still fussing over their patient, Azula could not get a good look at the injured person, but from the amount of blood left behind on the pavement, they had clearly suffered a very vicious and brutal assault. It was only when the paramedics began to load the stretcher into the ambulance that they parted, allowing Azula to catch a glimpse of the assault victim. It was Jet.

Azula felt her legs turning into jelly and her head starting to spin as she looked at the bloodied face of her unfortunate date. She staggered forward, bumping into one of the people watching the grim spectacle. She tried to steady herself against the older man, but it was no use. Everything simply became too much and she promptly feinted, collapsing on the pavement.

She had no idea how much time had passed when she regained her bearings once again. Azula found herself sitting on one of the benches near the entrance to the theater. A policeman was standing nearby, speaking with one of the female ushers at the theater, the girl who had checked her and Jet's tickets. The other cop was leaning inside the police vehicle, speaking with someone through the transmitter. Azula didn't like how the usher kept nodding and pointing at her when speaking with the policeman. She had no idea what they were talking about and she hated how the cops kept ignoring her even after she had regained her senses. Was she under some sort of suspicion? That was too ridiculous to contemplate.

Finally, the cop speaking with the girl usher waved her away and walked up to Azula, sitting down next to her. "How are you feeling now, miss?" he asked, not unkindly. Azula shrugged. "Are you ready to answer a few questions for us?"

"I don't know what to tell you," Azula shrugged again. "My evening date went to the bathroom and to pick up some popcorn and soda for me. He never came back, so I came out to look for him."

"I see," the cop replied, pulling out his notebook and a pen, scribbling down something. "How well do you know the victim, Mr. Jet Patel?"

"Not well at all. I didn't even know his last name," Azula replied. "We only met yesterday. He asked me out and I agreed."

"No previous connection, interesting," the cop remarked, writing down some more notes. Azula had no idea what was so interesting about what she had just said. "Did Mr. Patel mention any trouble he was in, anything of the sort? Did he act in a way that could be considered suspicious or unnatural?"

"Absolutely not," Azula shook her head. "Besides, I don't think he would have told me about any shady activities he might have been involved in. As I said, we had only just met."

"Well, we have to exhaust every avenue, miss," the cop frowned at her. "Do you have any current or ex boyfriends who might have viewed Mr. Patel as a threat?"

"What? No! I don't have any boyfriends," Azula exclaimed, starting to feel annoyed at being treated like some kind of a suspect. "I'm not even a local, if you must know. I'm from the Fire Nation. If I had any boyfriends, I doubt they would have come to stalk me in Ba Sing Se. I am here visiting with my father and his business associate."

"Ah, so you're a guest from the Fire Nation. Indeed, you don't look like a local," the cop said, a little disrespectfully, or at least Azula thought so. Thankfully, at this point, the other policeman walked up to them and pulled his colleague aside, starting to whisper in his ear. The cop who had been interviewing her then turned pale, casting a fearful glance at Azula. "For fuck's sake… I'm too old to be dealing with this shit," he swore quietly and then walked away, leaving his colleague to approach Azula.

This other cop was all polite smiles as he sat next to Azula. "Please accept the humblest apologies on behalf of the Ba Sing Se Police Department, Miss Nakamura," the man spoke, bowing his head respectfully. "It took us far too much time to confirm your identity, and for that I apologize most sincerely. I have been instructed to return you to your hotel, if you would be so kind as to follow me to the vehicle. There will be no further questions asked."

"Thank you," Azula said, rising from the bench to follow the policeman. He opened the passenger side doors for her and Azula got in and strapped herself into the seat. Moments later, they were on their way, Azula once again having to admire the power and influence carried by her family name. It wouldn't surprise Azula if her father could literally get away with murder, and perhaps by extension, so could she. "So, what do you think happened to Jet?" she decided to ask the copper.

"Jet Patel is Lower Ring trash with criminal record full of minor transgressions," the cop shrugged in response. "He hasn't been on our radar for a while, and apparently he's been trying to stay on the straight and narrow. But the past of being involved in gang violence has its way of catching up with kids like him."

"But you're going to continue your investigation, yes?" Azula continued.

"I'm not going to lie to you, Miss Nakamura," the policeman smiled politely. "Cases like these usually don't justify the time investment needed to crack them. If Mr. Patel can credibly ID his attacker, or attackers, we might be able to do something about it. If not, well… I wouldn't hold much hope." Azula had the sinking feeling that Jet would not be able to identify his attackers, because they most likely were Fire Nation goons in the employ of her father.

"How… how badly was he hurt?" Azula asked. She felt absolutely devastated by what had happened to Jet. She already felt guilty about him getting punched in the face at the restaurant. What had happened outside the movie theater was… absolutely insane. It just didn't seem like this could be real.

"Quite badly," the cop sighed. "It was fortunate that someone called the ambulance right away. One of the paramedics told me that he would have bled to his death if left unattended for two more minutes. But his life is not in danger, even if he was seriously worked over with a knife and a knuckle-duster." Azula swallowed heavily, trying to fight off the forming gag reflex. The policeman seemed to notice her state of discomfort. "Grim stuff, indeed," he said in a kind voice. "I'm sorry that this is the side of Ba Sing Se you had to see, Miss Nakamura."

"You don't have to apologize about that," Azula replied quickly. Yeah, you really don't. My family brought this shit-show to Ba Sing Se.

The police vehicle finally pulled up at the hotel entrance. The policeman at the wheel did not immediately get out, instead turning towards Azula. "Are you going to be alright, Miss Nakamura? I can see that you are still a little shaken up. Is there anything I can do for you?" he asked, looking concerned.

"No, I think I'll be fine now," Azula replied. "I just want to get back to my room, shower and go to bed. And try not to think about what happened," she said, already knowing that not thinking about what had happened wasn't really an option. This wasn't the kind of preparation she needed ahead of her game tomorrow.

"That's a very good idea, Miss Nakamura," the policeman smiled at her. "There's no reason for you to keep dwelling on this incident. Rest assured we will make sure that your name is not connected to the case in any way. You will not be asked any questions about it in the future." Azula nodded gratefully and the cop got out of the car, walking around it to open the passenger side door for Azula. "Goodnight, Miss Nakamura," the policeman bowed humbly as Azula ran up the stairs to the hotel entrance and quickly made her way to the elevator and the safety of her penthouse suite.

Back at her room, Azula spent a good quarter of an hour standing in a hot shower, as if hoping for the scalding water to wash away all the disturbing unpleasantness of the evening. It didn't really work and she didn't feel any less upset by the time she was out of the shower and dressed for bed, hiding under the duvet. The tempting thought of sneaking out to visit Katara had occurred to her, but she had reluctantly dismissed it. First, it was already quite late, past ten in the evening. Second, Katara would probably pick up on her being upset and would coax the story out of her. And this wasn't something that Azula really wanted to burden her friend with. This shit was starting to get really dark. Hearing about something like this would probably freak Katara out.

But maybe Katara should be freaked out. Maybe Azula shouldn't be spending her time with Katara and her friends. Ozai had asked his goons to keep an eye on her and tail her on this date with Jet. What if he reacted the same way to Katara and her friends? Ozai seemed fine with her having female friends. As long as there was nothing romantic between her and Katara or one of her friends (and Azula definitely had no such intentions!), perhaps Ozai would not react in such a drastic manner. But then again… lately Azula was struggling to predict her father's reaction. He was becoming increasingly brutal and it frightened Azula more than ever. Perhaps staying away from Katara and her friends would be for the best, but… damnation, the thought alone hurt so much. Azula wasn't sure she could force herself to stay away.

Azula rolled over in the bed, struggling to put her mind at ease, and as a result, sleep kept staying away. She could almost physically feel the resentment against her father building deep within her, more and more. It had already been bubbling strong after the events of the past few months, and then with that scene at the restaurant. But this… this was something else. Ozai clearly didn't care whether his thugs killed Jet or not. He had literally given permission to kill someone just because they had dared to take his daughter out on a date without his express approval. How fucked up was that? Azula felt a new kind of feeling growing within her, stronger than resentment, something she thought she could never feel towards her father, something that felt wrong and disrespectful to harbor even now. Still, deep within her, hatred for her father began to grow and spread.

And with it, came the uncertainty and anxiety over her future. She would come of age in a year and five months. But what would that mean for her? Would it really mean freedom? Disobeying Ozai and walking away from her father would clearly mean losing her inheritance. Could she survive living like lower-class trash, in terrible conditions like Jet and his extended family? Azula didn't think she was cut out for that sort of existence. In a way, perhaps enduring Ozai's beatings and emotional abuse was a small price to pay for her life of comfort and luxury. Or was it… Azula was no longer so sure. Besides, how did one even walk away from someone with such reach and influence as Ozai? He could make sure that all of her future prospects would be ruined, job or study applications denied. Her father held all the cards in this situation, and Azula… well, she was just his property.

That was the depressing reality of the situation. However… perhaps it didn't need to always remain this way. Perhaps she could come up with something that would allow her to gain freedom from her father. Yes, Azula felt that she had the makings of a plan. She would stop with this pointless rebellion against her father. It was only making things so much worse. No, she would try her best to appear the model daughter that she had earnestly aspired to be for so many years. But this time, she would do so merely to earn her father's trust and with it, perhaps access to obtaining something that would eventually allow her to extract herself from these toxic and unhealthy circumstances.

And this plan needed to succeed, because Azula knew that given enough time, her father was capable of completely breaking her will to resist him. She had a choice between succeeding and literally losing herself.

Next chapter: Who will win this year's championship? Will Katara clinch the title that appears to be hers? Will Azula complete a miraculous comeback? Or will a surprise contender upstage them both?

Chapter Text

I would like to take a moment to remind you all of Chapter 10, and Yue asking Suki out on a date. It's important to keep in mind in the context of this chapter.

Also, CW for violence, also known as frontier justice, Water Tribe style.

Katara felt very anxious on the morning before the final round of matches, and that was despite having knocked herself out with a couple of Librium pills the previous evening. It wasn't just the stressful circumstances of finding herself in the championship lead before the final round, being the odds-on favorite to win. Katara had never been in this position before, not in the finals. The one time she had won the tournament, she had come from behind to steal it from Azula in the final round. And now she was freaking out about someone else doing the same to her.

And the worst part about it all was that Katara didn't really mind for that to happen, as long as it was Azula who took the title from her. Katara knew that if she wanted to one day become a professional Pai Sho player, she really needed to become more ruthless and less soft-hearted, but just knowing about the threat that was hanging over Azula's head made it very hard for Katara to remain unaffected. Yes, she had made a promise to Azula not to throw any of her games on purpose, and thus far she had upheld her promise. Katara was determined to do her best against Teo in the final round. But at the same time, she kept feeling that she wouldn't be too upset if she were to lose. And that just wasn't the right frame of mind of a champion.

Katara absolutely and utterly loathed Ozai Nakamura, despite having never met the man. She hated his guts for what he was clearly doing to Azula. Even his mere presence had transformed the other girl. Azula still came to see her in the evenings, and occasionally she went up to stay with Azula at the penthouse suite. And while they had been enjoying each other's company, things were so very different now that Ozai was in town. Katara could not persuade Azula to open up about the things that were clearly bothering her. Azula would just clam up and insist that she didn't want to discuss anything that had to do with her father or with her feelings. Katara still had fun interacting with Azula, simply talking with her about whatever, watching TV or listening to the latest musical hits. It was all just a little frustrating for Katara, because she was so determined to help Azula in some way, and being rejected from doing so felt hurtful. And yet, Katara hoped that their time spent together was still helpful to Azula in some way by boosting the other girl's spirits, and it seemed to be doing that. Azula was smiling a lot more in her company than she did around other people. It made Katara feel like they were truly starting to connect in a meaningful, enduring way.

The occasions on which Azula had joined Katara and her friends had felt magical to Katara, so much so that now that Azula could no longer join them, she almost felt that the experience of hanging out with her friends was slightly diminished. It was still the absolutely best thing in Katara's life by far, but she felt that it could have been so much better with Azula present. Just watching the awkward, socially inept and lonely rich girl thriving and opening up in the nurturing and welcoming company of her friends was simply heartwarming. Still, even without Azula, Katara and her friends had been having a whale of a time every afternoon of a game day. They were really pushing each other to become better players, and their results in this tournament reflected their rapid progress.

Katara had won all of her previous four games with the exception of a draw against Kori Morishita. She had made a pretty bad mistake early on and probably should have lost, but Kori hadn't managed to press home a rather big advantage. Katara had a score of 7.5 points out of 10, and was in the sole lead of the tournament. A victory over Teo Guyuk in the final round would bring her the coveted gold medal, but Katara privately suspected that it would not be all so easy. Her nerves were really acting up ahead of the deciding match day, and she was feeling more anxious than ever before in a tournament.

It didn't help that there was a gaggle of incredibly talented players, including her best friends, lined up behind Katara, all of them on 7 points. Azula had continued her strong play despite being clearly affected by her father's presence. After starting with three inexplicable losses, she had followed it up with seven straight wins and would be playing Toph in the final round.

Toph Beifong was one of the other players on 7 points. Her play in this tournament had been nothing short of remarkable, considering that she was only fourteen years of age and normally would not even be playing in this age bracket. However, her success had made her the darling of the Ba Sing Se public, and had ensured that the spectator stands were absolutely packed on this final match day, including a considerable presence of the press. Toph had actually been in the tournament lead for a few rounds, but a loss to Aang had pushed her behind Katara, but it hadn't knocked her out of contention completely.

The third player on 7 points and with a chance to still take the title was none other than Yue Taqqiq. Once again, Yue had been flying under the radar throughout the entire tournament. She hadn't been flashy and she hadn't made waves. She had simply played a very solid game, cool as an ice cube, always remaining in touch with the leaders and then really closing the distance in the final rounds. She would be playing Aang in the final round. Aang himself was trailing a little further behind on 6 points, which was still a damn good showing for another fourteen year old, playing kids two and even three years older than himself.

Everything was set for another dramatic final round decider of the U18 World Championship, and Katara was determined to persevere in spite of her crippling anxiety.

Sokka was overjoyed to have front row seats for himself and his new friend on this final match day of the U18 finals. He could never have predicted the kind of crowd that had gathered in the stands in support of their new favorite, Toph Beifong. There was even a crowd gathered outside of the hotel, listening to the live radio coverage of the games and roaring in response to every move made by Toph, so loud that their cries could be heard in the hall inside. Sokka himself had some basic understanding of Pai Sho and its rules, having watched these tournaments for many years now. This, however, did not mean that he had the necessary insight to look at a complicated placement of tiles and determine which of the players actually had an advantage. This was where having a knowledgeable and otherwise awesome companion like Suki really paid off. Despite not considering herself a serious player, Suki had a very solid understanding of the game and she enjoyed explaining the intricacies of every ongoing game to Sokka.

They had been hanging out like this on every match day ever since meeting at the Jasmine Dragon more than a week ago. Suki was great company, especially when she toned down being flirty. Not that Sokka hated being flirted with by such a hot and smart girl, it just made him feel guilty. He didn't want to think about Suki as anything else than just a cool new friend, and he definitely didn't want to give Yue a reason to feel jealous. He had no intentions of cheating on Yue and he would have happily explained that his relationship with Suki was purely platonic, if not for the strange reaction from Yue when she had spotted him hanging out with Suki among the spectators. For some reason, Yue had paled considerably upon seeing Suki. Sokka thought that she had even appeared a little frightened. However, when Sokka had tried to speak to Yue about Suki, she had become incredibly evasive, brushing him off and making it clear that she wasn't interested in discussing that particular topic.

This final match day found Sokka struggling with conflicting loyalties. On one hand, his sister was in the lead and he really wanted Katara to clinch the title. However, should Katara stumble, Sokka was desperately hoping that it would be Yue who took advantage. This meant that Sokka was counting on Suki to constantly update him on three games at once, Katara playing Teo, Yue facing Aang and Toph fending off Azula. With the crowd roaring outside, this truly was a nerve-wracking situation that none of the players on the stage had previously faced. It was clear that the stronger nerves would prevail on this particular day, perhaps even trumping skill itself.

"What's going on now, Suki?" Sokka whined after another set of moves had been made in all three games capturing his attention. "I need you to tell me these things!"

Suki chuckled, probably at his nervousness. "All three games are still too close to call," she replied. "Although, I don't like the way your sister is playing today. She doesn't seem her usual self."

"No," Sokka sighed. "She has been stressed out since early morning. I couldn't find the rights words to help her relax."

"I'm sure you tried your best, Sokka," Suki smiled at him.

"Well, I really want Kat to succeed," Sokka said. "How are the other games looking?"

"Azula is trying to breach Toph's defenses, but the local heroine is standing firm," Suki commented. "Yue and Aang are trading some serious punches. It's all balancing on a knife's edge." Sokka let out a frustrated groan. Suki slipped her hand into Sokka's and squeezed it affectionately. "Sorry, I can't even imagine how stressful it must be, considering the personal investment."

"It really helps having someone nearby who can at least tell me what's going on," Sokka replied without looking at her, grateful for her hand in his. He then glanced at her with a quick smile. "And someone being supportive helps too."

"Oh… I'm sorry to say this, but Aang just tricked Yue into committing a mistake," Suki exclaimed much to Sokka's dismay. "There's no coming back from this one." Indeed, only a few moves later, Yue stopped the timing clock and shook hands with Aang.

"C'mon, sis, you've got to clinch it now," Sokka tried to cheer on Katara, but he didn't like the look on Suki's face when she overheard his words.

"Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, Sokka," Suki sighed. "She's under a lot of pressure now. I'm not sure she's going to squeak a win out of this one."

"Damn it! How can both of my girls lose on the final day? It can't be!" Sokka groaned. Katara looked like she was trying her best, but it simply wasn't her day. When she finally accepted her surrender, Sokka thought that his sister actually looked relieved, almost like someone who had been put under torture for hours, just happy for it to end, one way or the other. "So, it's going to be either Toph or Azula who takes the title?" Sokka asked anxiously.

"Not necessarily," Suki shook her head. "If they draw, they will have as many points as Katara. And Katara has beaten them both, so in the case of a draw, your sister could still be the champion, Sokka."

"Yeah, but how likely is a draw between those two?" Sokka asked. "Especially when they know they're playing for the title?"

"It's really tight going. Azula is throwing everything but the kitchen sink at Toph," Suki chuckled. "Damn, that little girl is resilient, though. She's like a rock, she is. I won't be surprised if she wears Azula down in the end."

"That's insane," Sokka shook his head. "Can you believe that Toph wasn't even supposed to be here in the first place?" Suki nodded, continuing to watch the game. Sokka did the same, paying more attention to the body language of the two girls than to the position of the tiles. As the game progressed, Sokka could not see any change whatsoever in Toph's posture. She still sat with her back as straight as the ironing board, head held high. Azula, on the other hand, looked to be suffering. She was shifting her body position all the time, reaching for her glass of water between every move. The Fire Nation girl was definitely tiring. Also, the growing volume of the crowd outside could only mean one thing. The scales were starting to tip in the underdog's favor. Toph was about to score a fantastic, almost unimaginable victory.

And then it was finally all over. Azula stopped the clock and shook hands with Toph, after which she slumped back into her chair, looking utterly exhausted. Toph climbed on top of her chair and did several fist pumps before starting to wave at the spectators. The crowd exploded in rapturous applause, the Earth Kingdom fans hugging, kissing each other on their cheeks and crying from happiness. As Toph continued to wave at the crowd, Sokka watched Katara walk up to Azula and exchange a few words before embracing her Fire Nation friend. Yue then joined them for a tender three way hug.

"Well, that was the craziest finale to a world championship I've ever seen," Suki shook her head in disbelief. "But at least your sister is coming home with a silver medal. That's nothing to sneeze at. And I think that it will be Azula Nakamura who ends up with the bronze."

"Yeah, I'm so proud of my sister," Sokka nodded. "And I'm proud of Yue, too. She's going to be really upset with herself. I should probably go and comfort her," he said, smiling at his companion. "Hey, Suki… thanks for hanging out with me during the games. It was a blast, really. I'd like for us to stay in touch, if you're interested. But only as friends, obviously," he added with a blush in his cheeks, offering her a piece of paper with a scribbled down phone number. "Call me anytime."

Suki refused to take the piece of paper, though. In fact, she looked kind of conflicted… almost guilty? "Sokka, you're a really awesome guy. However, I owe you a serious apology because I haven't been completely honest with you. But I did it only because I enjoyed hanging out with you, and I didn't want to ruin it," she sighed. "The truth is that I'm actually doing an internship with The Harmony Ring. It's one of the more popular Pai Sho magazines."

"What?" Sokka blinked. "You're a reporter? And you didn't tell me?" He felt angry heat hitting his cheeks. "I told you stuff about my sister and Yue that I would have never told a reporter! And now you're just going to use that for a juicy article?"

"No, I swear, I would have never used anything you told me, and I still won't," Suki insisted firmly. "I promise to send you a draft of my article to prove that I'm not lying to you, Sokka. Please, you must believe me."

"Ugh… I want to believe you. I guess I do," Sokka sighed. "I really wish you would have told me the truth to begin with, though."

"Would you have still wanted to hang out with me then?" Suki asked.

"Yes! I obviously would!" Sokka exclaimed.

Suki looked devastated at that. "Well, then I guess I went and royally fucked it all up," she sighed. "Go, Suki."

Sokka knew that he was letting her off too lightly for something that was a quite serious breach of trust. And yet he couldn't find it in himself to remain angry, mostly because he just couldn't stand the sight of a cute girl looking sad, everything about that felt plain wrong. "Ugh, just take my number," he pushed the piece of paper into Suki's hand. "And give me a call when your article is published. Maybe we can read it together over the phone," Sokka added, turning to leave.

"I'll do that, Sokka," Suki called after him. "And thanks!"

Waiting backstage for the victory ceremony Katara did not feel as crushed as she had expected herself to feel about her failure to secure the title which had been as good as hers. Of course, the way it had happened had been disappointing, but she was already taking 'Guru' Pathik's lessons to heart by starting to think about the ways in which she could learn from this defeat. Obviously, she hadn't handled the mental pressure well enough to win, and in the future she would have to find better ways to cope with it than taking extra doses of Librium. And it wasn't as if the second place was not an amazing achievement in itself. She had simply expected a little better from herself.

Toph was understandably over the moon about her victory, and everyone including Katara agreed that she deserved only the highest accolades for her performance. Aged fourteen, with the hopes of the entire Earth Kingdom resting on her back, she had remained as cool as a cucumber in the face of immense mental pressure. And now she was hyperactively skipping around the backstage, whooping, hollering and shadowboxing some imaginary opponents. Katara merely smiled at her younger friend's antics, even though her attention was mostly focused on the third person backstage with them, Azula Nakamura.

Katara had expected Azula to be just as upset and angry as she had been when losing the title to Katara on the final match day two years ago. However, Azula had simply sat down, appearing serene if still a little exhausted, calmly waiting to receive the bronze medal at the victory ceremony. It all felt a little odd to Katara, but then again, Azula had been withdrawn and subdued ever since her father had came to Ba Sing Se. It was almost as if Azula didn't care about how much trouble she was in with Ozai, acting as if she had already resigned herself to the inevitable punishment.

Aware that their remaining time together might be limited, Katara decided to sit down next to Azula to exchange a few words, even if her friend didn't appear to be in a talkative mood. "How much trouble are you in with your father?" Katara asked straight, deciding not to mince words.

Azula looked up at her. There was exhaustion in her amber eyes. "I don't know yet," she shrugged. "I imagine that there might be some repercussions."

Katara had a strong suspicion that Azula was downplaying the seriousness of her situation, but there was no time to argue about that now. "He's going to whisk you away right after the ceremony?" she asked. Azula nodded tiredly. "I'm guessing the after-party is off limits this year?"

Azula let out a short bark of laughter. "Obviously," she snorted. "Sorry. I know we had a good time at the after-party last year. I would have liked to come."

"You don't have to be sorry. In fact, I'm sorry that you are not allowed to attend. It's just not right-" a rant was brewing deep inside of Katara, and she only just about managed to suppress it. "Azula, can you promise me something?" she asked in her most serious voice.

"I can't promise anything until I know what you're going to ask of me," Azula replied, completely reasonably.

"I can't stand the thought of being out of touch with you for an entire year," Katara sighed. She noticed Toph making exaggerated kissy faces at them nearby. Katara firmly decided to ignore Toph. "Please, I want you to promise me that this time you're actually going to call me. Whenever you can, but please, just call me."

Azula looked at her, holding Katara's gaze. There was a touch of rare emotion in her amber eyes. She looked overwhelmed. "You're right. The thought of not speaking with you for an entire year feels unacceptable," Azula said. "I promise to call you as soon as I can."

"So, is this where you two start making out?" Toph needed to know. "Just warn me in advance so that I can cover my eyes, you rampant lesbians."

"It's not like that at all, Toph!" Katara protested, giving the grinning girl an angry stare.

"Just ignore her, she's clearly baiting us," Azula shrugged. Katara blinked, almost having to check herself whether she was dreaming or not. Azula was reacting more sensibly than she was? What was this, the Twilight Zone?

Before any more words could be exchanged, however, one of the tournament officials showed up to invite them back onto the stage. The podium had been assembled, and the organizing committee was standing by with their medals and flower bouquets prepared. Katara and Toph were both delighted to see Iroh Nakamura together with the tournament organizers. It seemed that Uncle Iroh was about to take part in the victory ceremony, which earned happy smiles from Toph and Katara, and a frustrated groan from Azula.

Azula was called to take the podium first, climbing on the lowest step to receive her bronze medal. Iroh walked up to her and placed the bronze medal around her neck, smiling as they exchanged words, Katara being close enough to be able to overhear them over the muted applause from the crowd. "My heartfelt congratulations, niece," Iroh told Azula. "The way you recovered from a poor start to the tournament was truly awe inspiring. I hope your father appreciates this achievement for what it is. He'd be a fool not to see this as a great success."

"Whatever, uncle," Azula shrugged in response. "You know that for me it has always been victory or nothing."

Iroh looked a little saddened at that as he stepped back to pick up the silver medal and then place it around Katara's neck once she had taken her place on the podium. She received considerably louder cheer from the audience when compared to Azula. The Fire Nation was not exactly well liked in the heart of the Earth Kingdom. The Cold War between the two superpowers was intensifying with every month of every passing year.

"Congratulations, Katara," Uncle Iroh told her with a warm smile. "I know you must feel a little disappointed right now, but your time will come. I am certain of it."

"Thank you, Uncle Iroh," Katara returned the smile warmly. "I will use this experience as a learning opportunity."

"I know you will," Iroh nodded at her, then walking away to pick up the gold medal and hang it around Toph's neck. If he had planned to exchange words with Toph as well, then that plan had to be abandoned instantly, for the crowd erupted in such loud cheers that it made conversation impossible. Instead, Iroh simply placed the gold medal around Toph's neck, appearing surprised when the young girl then decided to give him a hug. The crowd continued to cheer excitedly as Katara and Azula were then urged to climb onto the top spot of the podium alongside Toph so that their photos could be taken by all the press photographers.

Fortunately, Toph was soon whisked away for her press conference, leaving Katara and Azula behind. Still, in plain view of the large audience, and with Azula's father most likely being somewhere in the crowd, there was no way for them to share another moment of privacy. It was time to part for another year, and they both looked equally depressed by that thought, sharing one final exchange of somber stares before parting ways, Katara soon catching up with Sokka, Yue and Aang, while Azula disappeared in the crowd.

It was hard for Katara not to feel down at the conclusion of the tournament. She wasn't sure if she would ever get another chance like this to claim the coveted gold medal. And if she wasn't meant to take the title herself, she would have preferred that Azula took it, if only to avoid the brutal punishment by her father. However, none of this changed the fact that Toph had earned her victory and Katara wasn't going to begrudge her younger friend this amazing success. Come the evening, they would make sure to properly toast Toph's triumph in the tournament's after-party, even if Katara's heart wasn't truly in it anymore.

With Azula being absent at the tournament's after-party and Toph's victory having been toasted, Katara had only one reason to remain at the event, and that was to exact payback on a pair of revolting Fire Nation assholes. While she had promised Azula not to speak about what had happened on that particular evening, in the context of the promise what they both had meant was to not disclose the truth to the authorities. Katara would have been happy to follow Azula's wishes to the letter, but she didn't think that she could handle both Ruon-Jian and Chan all by herself, so she had told Yue and Sokka, while keeping it from Aang and Toph, not wanting to upset their younger friends.

To say that Sokka and Yue had been outraged would be an understatement. They had both immediately jumped aboard of Katara's idea to make Chan and Ruon suffer for what they had clearly intended to carry out with Azula. Between the three of them, they had hatched a plan. The after-party was being held in a fancy downtown nightclub, rented for the night exclusively for the contestants and those accompanying them. There was a car park right next to the club, and several trees on a patch of greenery behind the car park. With all the contestants still being minors, most of them had taken a cab to the nightclub, so the car park stood almost empty and eerily silent, the perfect place for their plan to teach the Fire Nation assholes a well deserved lesson.

It didn't take very long for both Ruon-Jian and Chan to have become quite inebriated and they were soon back to their old tricks, pestering the girls who appeared to be single for the evening, like Kori or On Ji. Katara and Toph were technically also single, but the two braggarts probably considered Toph too young to be an interesting target, and Katara made sure to always stay close with her group of friends, and so they hadn't dared to approach her yet. That would hopefully change once Katara and Yue put their plan into motion, the first part of which was to get Chan and Ruon to approach them.

For this to work, Sokka had discreetly disappeared, setting up an ambush outside, by the car park. Yue and Katara then went to sit by the bar, sipping their non-alcoholic cocktails, making sure to giggle insipidly and throw the occasional glance at Ruon and Chan. The bait was too tantalizing not to take and the pair of Fire Nation delinquents instantly made a beeline for the bar to chat them up. "Ladies, we noticed you were looking lonely over here," Ruon began, struggling not to slur his speech. "Care for some company?"

"What a silly question, of course they would care for our company," Chan chuckled, standing much closer to Katara than she really cared for. "How about a dance, baby?"

"I don't think so," Katara shook her head, then remembering to smile. "This lame Earth Kingdom music is getting us both down. We were thinking of slipping outside for a bit."

"But you can come along if you want," Yue added, managing to sound sultry. How she could act so convincingly without throwing up in her mouth, Katara had no idea. "I mean… we might need protection," Yue winked at Ruon.

"Well, you've come to the right guys, that's for sure," Ruon laughed drunkenly. "Although…" he leaned in closer to Yue. "I'm going to let you in on a secret. It's a lot more fun without protection."

"Haha, preach it, brother," Chan exclaimed, fist-bumping his good buddy. Katara exchanged disbelieving stares with Yue. The sleaziness of these two jerks was almost comical. "By the way… Yue, right? Didn't you have that useless boyfriend of yours hanging around?" Chan looked carefully around the place.

"We had an argument, so… I don't think I currently have a boyfriend," Yue lied smoothly. "In fact, I might be looking for a little payback."

"Sounds perfect," Ruon-Jian chuckled, glancing at Katara. "What about you, Katara? I didn't think you liked me and Chan all that much?"

"I'm just being a good wingwoman for my bestie," Katara shrugged in reply.

"Yeah, we're like each other's wingwomen," Yue giggled. "Now, are you coming with us for a walk or not?" It was a question that really didn't need to be asked. There was no way these two assholes would be able to resist two highly attractive and apparently willing Water Tribe beauties.

Less than a couple of minutes later, they were hanging out by the empty and quiet car park, Yue and Katara giggling as they ran off towards the patch of greenery, acting as if they expected the guys to chase after them. And chase they did. Not long after, Ruon had Yue pressed against a tree trunk, trying to kiss her, while Chan had his arms around Katara's waist, trying to pull her tightly against him. Katara put her arms against Chan's chest, trying to fight off his unwelcome drunk affections, praying that Sokka would spring the trap soon.

Fortunately, Sokka wasn't about to let them down, tapping on Chan's shoulder from behind. As Chan turned his head to look behind him, a sharp elbow exploded in his face, knocking him to the ground. At the same time, seeing that the action had kicked off, Yue rammed her right knee between Ruon's legs, smashing his family jewels. Ruon grunted and doubled over in pain. Sokka grabbed him by his hair and smashed Ruon's face in with his knee, breaking Ruon's nose. Within seconds, the two bastards were on the ground, groaning in pain.

Chan was the first to make the mistake of trying to get up and come at Sokka. The Water Tribe boy avoided the drunken swing aimed at his head, and stunned Chan with a clean uppercut to his jaw. With Chan staggering, Katara felt a surge of boldness and she stepped up to kick him right in the nuts, just like Yue had done to Ruon. Chan bent over from the pain, at which point Yue clonked him on the back of the head, hard, knocking him prone to the ground and this time Chan decided against trying to get up. Ruon-Jian apparently hadn't learned his lesson and was slowly propping himself up on his elbows, but Sokka unleashed a savage kick at his midsection. Ruon rolled over with a pained groan and lay still, clutching his ribs.

Satisfied, the threesome then returned to the nightclub. The nagging worry that this richly justified payback might come back to haunt them was bothering Katara a little bit, but she also knew that Chan and Ruon-Jian would never dare to go to the police, especially not Earth Kingdom police, considering what they had tried to do to Azula. Still, Katara, Yue and Sokka decided that it would be for the best to not take any additional risks and further tempt fate. It was time to collect Aang and Toph before getting the hell out of the nightclub and say their farewells to Ba Sing Se in the morning.

Next chapter: Let's see if Azula keeps her promise about staying in touch with Katara.

Chapter Text

CW: Child abuse. Sorry, but we all knew this was coming. However, there's a silver lining in the way of Azula's changing mindset.

Roughly two weeks after returning from Ba Sing Se, Katara was well and truly back to her old routine between attending school, helping out around the house as much as she could, and keeping up her Pai Sho practice, which included lengthy phone conversations with Yue. Her silver medal had been noticed by the general public, and the press had reached out to her for comments, but the interest had waned a lot quicker than following her winning the U15 title two years ago. Again, Katara wasn't really chasing fame, she was in it for the love of the game alone, and the priceless friendships she had established through it.

On just another regular Tuesday morning in mid-April, Katara was busy working in the kitchen. She was preparing some PBJ's to help herself and Sokka through the long day at school, when the phone rang out at the Enuaraq household. Katara paid no attention to it, assuming that it was one of Gran-Gran's acquaintances. Kanna had a lot of friends in the tightly knit community, and all the village women near her grandmother's age loved a little bit of gossip now and then. So, Katara was rather surprised that shortly after answering the call, Gran-Gran stepped into the kitchen and turned to her granddaughter.

"Katara, there's a girl on the phone, asking for you," Gran-Gran told her.

This really surprised Katara. Yue never called her in the mornings, especially not on a school day. It was probably that Earth Kingdom girl Suki who was lately calling Sokka quite often and Gran-Gran had simply misheard who she had asked for. The whole thing with this Suki girl was bothering Katara quite a bit. She didn't think that Sokka should be spending so much time talking with another girl behind Yue's back, and she had told him so in no uncertain terms. Sokka had responded that Yue knew about his friendship with Suki and had no problems with it. Katara had not believed her brother and had checked with Yue. Much to her surprise, Yue had confirmed that she indeed had no problems with Sokka talking with Suki. Katara had thought that Yue had sounded a little weird about it, however, so she really didn't know what to think about it all.

"Are you sure she's not asking for Sokka, Gran-Gran?" Katara asked, quickly finishing up the construction of the PBJ's and wrapping them in a plastic film.

"I'm sure, sweetie," Gran-Gran smiled at her. "She sounded very official when asking for you, using both your first and last name. I wish to speak with Katara Enuaraq, please. Put a smile on my face, she did."

Katara knew only one girl who spoke like that, but could it really be Azula? She hadn't called in the days following the tournament, and Katara had been dying from anxiety to hear from her Fire Nation friend. But when Azula still didn't call, Katara had become resigned to the fact that Azula would probably end up never calling her, same as the previous year. It had made Katara quite depressed. She had truly believed that they had connected for real during this year's tournament.

"Hello?" Katara asked, having picked up the handset. Her hand was trembling slightly from the anticipation.

"Hi," she heard a quiet, slightly subdued voice on the phone, still unmistakably belonging to Azula.

"Oh thank the spirits, it really is you," Katara breathed a huge sigh of relief. "I'm so glad to hear your voice again. How are you, Azula?"

There was a lengthier pause before Azula replied, and for a moment Katara began to fear that the call had disconnected. "I've been better, Katara, but you needn't worry about that," came the eventual reply, completely failing to reassure her. "I'm going to be fine."

"But you're not fine right now, I can hear it in your voice," Katara insisted. She was certain of it, too. Azula sounded weak and tired. It felt really wrong in someone so full of energy and zeal like her Fire Nation friend. "How bad was it?" she asked, referring to the punishment that Azula had clearly received from her father.

"It wasn't good," Azula replied, confirming Katara's worst fears. Azula always downplayed the way her father mistreated her. If she admitted that it wasn't good, then it must have been horrendous. "It didn't help that the news came in about Zuko winning the U21's. My asshole of a brother just had to compound my misery."

Katara winced at the other girl's words. She disliked the idea of Azula hating her brother simply for doing well. But when his success resulted in Azula getting punished, it was easy to see why she would further resent Zuko for his achievements. And it had been an impressive achievement, despite the lower prestige of the U21 age bracket. For someone to win it in their first year was quite amazing. Not many from that upper age bracket had made the switch to the ranks of pro players, so the lineup had still been very strong.

"I'm so sorry, Azula," Katara managed, struggling not to tear up. "It just upsets me so much that I can't do anything to help you."

"You can talk to me," Azula said. "I thought that was the purpose of why you wanted me to call you. By the way, it's already helping me, just… just by taking my mind off things, you know?"

"Do you want to talk more about what exactly happened with your father?" Katara asked carefully. Azula always became so evasive about it, and pressuring her to open up over the phone would probably be close to impossible. Katara couldn't well make puppy eyes at the other girl over the phone.

"Sorry, but I really don't," Azula sounded insistent. "Can we talk about something else instead?"

"Of course, we can talk about anything," Katara said quickly. If this was helping Azula, then she was willing to talk about whatever, even if it meant avoiding the crux of the matter.

"How is school?" Azula asked. It was an odd thing for Azula to ask, but it just showed how much she wanted to move on from talking about her father and the violent outburst she had endured.

"Oh, as boring as ever, I'm sure you know the feeling," Katara replied. "What about you? How are you going to handle school now?"

"I'm not going to return to Li and Lo's boarding school this semester, even once I get better," Azula said. She sounded really down about it. "So it's going to be private tutors again. Maybe I can go back to Li and Lo's in September. Hopefully I'll have my car back by then, too. And be able to drive it."

"Ugh, that's terrible, I'm really sorry to hear that," Katara sighed. "I wish things were better for you, Azula, I really do."

"Things will get better, don't worry about it," Azula tried to sound reassuring. It didn't really work. "By the way, I was trying to figure out the difference in time zones before calling you, but I'm not sure I got it right. It should be evening where you are, right?"

"Uh… not quite, you got it the other way around," Katara chuckled. It was rare for Azula to make mistakes like that. It showed just how badly off she was after enduring her father's punishment. "It's actually a quarter past eight in the morning."

"It is?" Azula sounded embarrassed. "Ugh, now I feel like an idiot. Shouldn't you be in school?" she asked.

"My classes start later on Tuesdays," Katara lied smoothly, ignoring her brother who was jumping up and down nearby, pointing at his wristwatch and gesticulating wildly. Sokka's finals were coming up shortly, and he was becoming quite stressed about his graduation. Katara fully sympathized with her brother, but she wasn't going to hang up on Azula, not when the other girl badly needed her.

"Katara! We're going to be late for class!" Sokka whined at her.

Katara covered the handset with her palm to stop Azula from overhearing her. "It's Azula," she hissed at her brother. "The class can wait! In fact, just go without me!"

"But how are you going to get to the school, dumbass?" Sokka glared at her. He was making a good point. Ever since Sokka had gotten his driver's license, they had stopped taking the school bus and Katara was now relying on Sokka for transportation considering that their school was almost a forty minute walk away from their house. Still, Katara merely shrugged at Sokka in response to his question. She could afford to skip a class or two. It was not a big deal to her. All Katara knew was that she couldn't ditch Azula.

"Ugh, I guess I can afford to miss out on PE for the first time in my life," Sokka let out a resigned sigh, slumping into one of the chairs in the living room, determined to keep waiting for her. Katara was tempted to tell him to go and lay about somewhere else where he couldn't listen in on her conversation with Azula, but since Sokka was trying to be accommodating for her sake, she didn't want to appear ungrateful by ordering him around.

"Well, I suppose we should work out a better time for me to call then," Azula said, Katara finally being able to direct her full attention at her friend. "That is, assuming you still want me to call."

"Of course I want you to call!" Katara exclaimed heatedly. "I was really looking forward to talking with you again. As for when to call… well, what time is it in Caldera City right now?"

"It's a quarter past five in the afternoon," Azula said. "Hmm, this is going to be tricky. What time do you usually get back from the school?"

"It depends on the day, but usually between three and five in the afternoon," Katara replied. "Generally, any time past five is safe to call. Although, that would make it awfully late for you, wouldn't it? An hour past midnight, I think."

"That's right," Azula said. "I think I can manage that."

"Are you sure?" Katara couldn't help being worried. "Won't your father be angry about you staying up so late?"

"Probably," Azula replied. "But he's absent more than half of the time. And even when he's staying at the Caldera estate, I'm sure I can manage to make a call without him finding out."

"Only if you're sure about it, Azula," Katara didn't relent. "I would really hate it if instead of helping you I would only get you into further trouble."

"It's going to be alright, Katara, stop worrying," she could tell that Azula was smiling on the other end of the line, the thought of it warming Katara's heart. "This estate has four phone lines. There's one phone in the upper floor office that my father never uses. I can sneak in there to use it without him being any wiser. Trust me when I say that I wouldn't take any additional risks, not after-… I mean, I'll be very careful, I promise."

"Alright, I trust you," Katara sighed, finally giving up. It sounded like Azula really needed this, especially now. And Katara had begged her friend to call. Now that she had done so, Katara didn't want to discourage her, even if there was a slight risk of being discovered and getting into further trouble. She had to hope and pray that the risk was worth it.

"Thank you," Azula replied, sounding grateful. There was a moment of silence before she spoke up again. "So… what do regular people usually talk about on the phone?" she asked uncertainly.

Katara chuckled at the question, even though it also made her feel a little sad. There were so many things that she wanted to get Azula to open up about, but it was clear that Azula was reluctant to do so, and Katara's powers of persuasion were clearly limited across the landline. It seemed that they were stuck mainly with small talk. Or maybe… "Hey, I have an idea," Katara spoke up suddenly. "I also speak to Yue on the phone almost every day. We talk about a lot of stuff, but we also have several long distance Pai Sho games running. We each have a day to decide on our next move, so it's slow going, but it's also really fun. Maybe we should try something like that?"

"I think that's a very good idea," Azula agreed instantly. "Hmm, I have the whole evening free while you should be off to the school, right? How about I decide on a few opening moves and then call you in the afternoon when you've returned from the school?"

"That sounds perfect," Katara grinned broadly at the thought that Azula was going to call her later in the afternoon. Even though they were still talking on the phone, Katara already couldn't wait for their next conversation.

"Also, this is actually a great excuse I could use with my father if he ever catches me talking on the phone late at night," Azula continued. "I can just tell him that you're my sparring partner and this is all a part of my training."

"That's very crafty, good idea," Katara said, hoping that Ozai Nakamura would actually accept this explanation, something she was not necessarily confident of.

"Well, I am exceptionally smart, after all," Azula was only happy to compliment herself in a way that made Katara smile.

"Azula?" she asked, suddenly thinking back of something that had happened in Ba Sing Se. The story of Chan and Ruon-Jian's beating was sure to leak at some point, if it hadn't already. Katara was certain that being honest with Azula about what had happened was the right way to go. If she were to find out the truth from someone else, Azula might become angry with her, and Katara was desperate to avoid that. "There's something you need to know about what happened in Ba Sing Se, at the tournament's after-party," she said with a sigh.

"What is it, Katara?" Azula sounded calm on the phone. It seemed as if she had no idea what Katara was referring to.

"I'm talking about the whole mess that happened with Chan and Ruon-Jian at the start of the tournament. What you told me to keep quiet about?" Katara began. Azula remained silent for the time being. "I'm sorry, but I simply couldn't let it slide. I told Yue and Sokka about it." Nearby, Sokka was gesticulating wildly at her with a frantic 'what on earth are you doing' look in his eyes. "We exacted a little Water Tribe frontier justice on them," Katara finished, deciding to ignore her brother.

"Wait a minute," Azula spoke up, sounding perplexed. "I was on the same plane to Caldera City with them the next morning. They were absolutely fucked up. They were both wearing those casts on their noses… splints, I think they're called? And Ruon was using a cane to get around. Are you telling me that the three of you did all that damage? I mean, they were absolutely wrecked."

"Well, it was mostly Sokka, to be honest," Katara chuckled. Sokka let out a loud groan of despair at her indiscretion. "He went absolute beast-mode on those assholes. Yue and I just kicked them in the nuts for good measure."

Azula burst into laughter on the other end of the line. "Agni, you three are my favorite Water Tribe savages in the world," she giggled. "You didn't have to do that for me, but honestly, it makes me feel so much better knowing that you did."

"So you're not mad at me?" Katara just needed to be sure. "I did promise that I wouldn't tell anyone about what happened that evening when you got drunk."

"Well," Azula began to speak, then hesitating. "Normally, I might be a little angry and disappointed, but you did it for such a satisfying reason that I can't be mad at you. Just… just try not to make a habit out of telling my secrets to others, alright?"

"Of course, Azula, I would never do that. I'm really sorry," Katara apologized profusely.

"No, don't apologize. You made a good judgment call there and I approve wholeheartedly," Azula uttered quickly. "It's just that I've had some bad experiences with people breaking my trust. You haven't done that, because I don't consider this episode as a betrayal of my trust. So, I guess you don't deserve my suspicion and paranoia. I'm just generally having a hard time-"

"Trusting anyone at all," Katara finished for her. "I understand, Azula. That's why it means so much to me when you do entrust me with something. And I promise to never make you regret trusting me."

"Alright," Azula said simply, sounding satisfied. "Anyway, I really wish I could have been there to see Chan and Ruon-Jian getting pummeled. I would have thrown a punch or two, myself. Also, I know I often give your brother a hard time, but I have to say, hearing all this, well… I think I'm starting to like him."

Katara burst into giggles at that. "I am so telling him that!" she exclaimed, glancing at the perplexed looking Sokka.

"No!" Azula protested. "Don't you dare!"

"Aww, come on, I think he knows it already," Katara sniggered.

"Ugh, fine, do as you wish," Azula relented. "You guys are weird," she added with a sigh. "Anyway, how is your brother? I think you're supposed to ask these questions about family members and stuff, right? It's probably polite."

"Haha, yes it is," Katara grinned. "And Sokka is doing just fine. He's just freaking out about his upcoming finals, even though I keep telling him that there's no reason to stress about it."

"Azula is asking about me?" a wide-eyed Sokka blinked at her. "Why is Azula asking about me?" Katara rolled her eyes and decided to ignore him again.

"Does he have any plans for college?" Azula asked. Katara was a little surprised at the interest she was showing. If she didn't already know that Azula was into girls just like she was, Katara would have started to suspect that maybe she was sweet on her brother. Sokka certainly seemed to be developing that assumption.

"Ah, no… not at first," Katara replied with a sigh. "Our family just isn't wealthy enough to send us both to college, so as much as I would like my brother to get a good education, right now all the extra cash goes into my college fund. It's making me really guilty at times, but hopefully with time we'll find some options for Sokka as well. My father was in talks with the local forestry union about some vocational programs Sokka could apply to. He's eyeing a job at the local sawmill."

Azula did not speak for a long time, as if trying to digest all this information. "I wish I could truly understand how much of a struggle everyday life is for your family, Katara, but the truth is, I guess I am only capable of a very surface level of understanding," Azula replied eventually.

"It's okay, I don't place expectations on you to immediately understand and empathize," Katara smiled. She had long since stopped being angry at Azula for not getting the struggles of the lower class. It really wasn't her fault. She was locked in her ivory tower with few opportunities to learn about the life outside of it.

"Thank you," Azula said in response. There was a prolonged pause before she spoke up again. "I should probably let you go now or you might miss the start of your classes."

"Err…" Katara managed meekly.

"Oh," Azula realized quickly. "You've already missed a class, haven't you?"

"It's alright, I can afford to," Katara replied, trying to sound reassuring. "But you're right, I should run now. Sokka is looking like he's about to snap, too. He's waiting for me."

"Oh. Sorry," Azula said, sounding embarrassed. "Alright, then I'll call you in the afternoon with my opening Pai Sho moves. Talk to you later."

"Bye!" Katara exclaimed as Azula hung up the phone and Katara did the same, much to her brother's relief.

"Good grief, you sure can blather on and on and on!" Sokka glared at her. "Can we go now? Please?"

"Yes, yes, stop your nagging and let me just finish dressing, will you?" Katara exclaimed, quickly grabbing her parka and putting it on in front of the mirror, making sure that she was otherwise presentable for school. "Did you pack the sandwiches?" she asked, reaching for her backpack with the textbooks.

"Of course I did," Sokka retorted, forcefully pushing her towards the doors and out of the house, not letting Katara waste any more time. "I can't believe you made me miss class because of Azula Nakamura!" he exclaimed as the two bickering siblings got into the old Powell truck.

"Come on, it's just PE, stop crying about a missed game of boring dodgeball," Katara sighed. "I certainly won't be sad about not getting struck in the face by some of your more annoying classmates." In a low population area such as Cape Kuruk, it was a common practice to lump together kids of different ages just to create more respectable class sizes. This meant that Katara ended up having a lot of classes together with Sokka. It wasn't a great solution in PE, where the older boys often made it a habit to headhunt some of the younger and prettier girls like Katara when playing dodgeball, a game that Katara had grown to truly detest.

"Alright, fine, as long as we don't miss algebra," Sokka grumbled, stepping on the gas pedal. The Powell truck crawled out of the driveway, accompanied by Naga's barking. "Why'd you tell Azula about the beating we gave to those assholes, anyway?" he asked as they began the ten minute drive to the school.

"I just want to be very honest and transparent with Azula," Katara replied. "She has a real problem trusting other people. I don't want to make her feel like I'm hiding something from her." She looked over at her brother. "Don't fret, Sokka. She's not going to misuse this information in some nefarious way."

"It's not about that," Sokka replied. "You talked a lot about me afterwards. I just don't need the complication of her falling for a charming Water Tribe lad, you know?"

Katara rolled her eyes, fighting the temptation to smack Sokka. Considering that he was driving, that would have been potentially dangerous. "Oh, get over yourself, hot shot!" she groaned. "What, you have to date all the girls I end up befriending? You are so full of yourself, Sokka."

"Are you saying that she's not into me, then?" Sokka frowned.

"No, she's not. Deal with that crushing disappointment," Katara snorted. She wasn't going to explain why Azula couldn't be into Sokka. Azula hadn't come out even to herself yet.

"I'm not disappointed, I'm relieved," Sokka shrugged. "As long as you're right about your claims, and I don't know how you can be so sure."

"Oh, trust me," Katara smirked, a knowing grin on her lips. "I'm sure."

Having concluded her phone conversation with Katara, Azula remained sitting in the comfortable office chair, in no hurry to return to her room. Almost a week after the beating she had received, moving about still brought her so much pain. It hadn't even been a particularly severe beating, at least at first, until she had stupidly opened her mouth to blurt out something about the bronze medal still being worth something after her appalling start to the tournament.

Ozai had truly lost it at that point. He had grabbed her medal and used it instead of his leather belt. Azula usually endured her father's violent outbursts stoically, crying and whimpering quietly. But this time, she had screamed and begged her father to stop, it had hurt so much. When Ozai finally relented, he seemed a little shocked and disturbed by his handiwork. The family doctor had been summoned instantly to tend to the many lacerations left by the sharp edges of the medal.

Once again, the family doctor had been shocked by the state in which he had found his patient, having to tend to almost a dozen deep lacerations and discovering some bruising to Azula's ribs. While the old man treating her was always kind and sympathetic, Azula knew that he would never dare to stand up to her father and report Ozai's actions to the authorities. He had lost his doctor's license in a disgraceful affair of selling prescription meds on the black market. With his reputation in tatters, he was completely reliant on the paychecks of Ozai Nakamura and he would never turn on his benefactor, no matter how much he sympathized with Azula. At least Azula was now slowly on the mend and the doctor had reassured her that none of the cuts would leave noticeable permanent scarring.

In the past, following such beatings, Azula would always fall into the mindset of assigning all the blame for it to herself, for being a failure in the eyes of her father. She had spent years convincing herself that all of these bad things happening to her were of her own making. Wasn't she an incredibly privileged heiress of a successful multimillionaire? Was doing her utmost to please her father truly such a high price to pay for this life of luxury and comfort she was enjoying? Shouldn't she expect having to make some sacrifices if she wanted to prove herself worthy of one day inheriting her father's empire? The answers to all of these questions had seemed obvious. The onus was on her to do better and to stop disappointing her father.

Her first reaction still was to blame herself, but lately, she was starting to seriously question it. The image of Ozai's infallibility had begun to crack when Azula had learned the truth of what had happened to Ty Lee's family. Then there was the car accident and her father's reaction which proved that he saw her more as his property than an actual human being with its own needs and desires. Her complaints about being treated unfairly brought more and more punishments upon her, all of them further souring their relationship. But what had happened in Ba Sing Se had been the final straw. When Azula had seen the unconscious Jet, being carried away by the paramedics, the blinds had finally come off and she had finally realized the truth. Her father was a violent and evil sociopath. There was no way around that stark truth. How could her mother have abandoned her alone with this monster? The realization of her father's true nature also filled Azula with even more burning hatred for her mother, and by extension, also with intense dislike for Zuko and Iroh. They had gotten out safe and squeaky clean, leaving her in this abusive and toxic hellhole.

Azula now needed to find a way to survive living with Ozai. The beating she had recently received suggested that it might not be easy. Thankfully, following the violent beating, Ozai had been staying away and their only interactions had been a few short phone conversations. It seemed that on some level her father realized that he had gone too far, but Azula did not believe that it was out of sympathy or concern for her. It seemed more that Ozai was horrified that he had damaged his most valued property too harshly. He was trying to rebuild the burned down bridges, too. Every day, Azula was sent flowers and expensive gifts. On the phone, Ozai had told her that she could have her car back at the start of the summer, and that there would be other perks and nice surprises if she were to behave acceptably from now on. Azula had numbly agreed with everything her father had said, uttering meaningless words of gratitude, anything that she guessed he was eager to hear. She needed Ozai to think that he had succeeded in breaking her, and that she would be as obedient as before. She was not going to rebel in a way that was going to get her killed. And she was going to try and find a way out of this situation.

There was one ray of light still left in Azula's life, and it had revealed itself following her phone conversation with Katara. She had struggled so much with herself before even making that call, but not because she hadn't wanted to talk to Katara. Azula just didn't want to bring all this darkness and misery surrounding her into Katara's life, and she was still determined not to discuss anything Ozai related with her friend. But even this one phone conversation had shown Azula how much she had needed it. Katara had been instrumental in helping Azula realize the true nature of her father. Katara had done it through her compassion, understanding and acceptance, through introducing her to true meaning of friendship, and through her stories about her father and her family, which further helped Azula understand that Ozai's treatment of her was definitely not normal or acceptable.

Because of what had happened with Jet and Ty Lee, Azula was obviously still worried about having Katara in her life even as a friend. She was trying to reassure herself that Ozai would not try anything as long as Katara remained only a friend. After all, her father had encouraged her to cultivate friendships with other girls, and to have a regular sparring partner. Katara was ticking all those boxes, so Ozai couldn't really complain, could he? Besides, Azula wasn't even interested in having anything more than friendship with Katara. Just because Katara was intelligent, passionate, loyal and very attractive… in other words, perfect in every way save perhaps for the lack of upper class pedigree, it didn't mean that Azula was smitten or anything. The butterflies in her stomach when she thought about their next phone conversation didn't mean anything at all. It couldn't mean anything. Not while her father remained such a menacing threat not only to her, but to everyone she cared for.

Next chapter: Let's see what changes the summer brings.

Chapter Text

Sokka was sitting behind the wheel of the family's old Powell truck, watching the bus from Agna Qel'a slowly pulling into what passed for the Cape Kuruk bus station. It basically consisted of a small kiosk selling tickets next to a square of hole-ridden asphalt. The reason for the sad state of the infrastructure became obvious when only a few people emerged from the bus at its final destination, one of them a pretty and athletic auburn haired girl, wearing denim shorts and a bright red crop top.

Sokka immediately got out of the car and waved at the girl, trying to get her attention. "Suki! Over here!" he called out to her.

Suki grinned broadly as she walked up to him and they exchanged a brief hug. Sokka decided that he loved her perfume, the subtle aroma of apricots. "Wow, you were not lying about the car," Suki laughed, looking at the old truck. Despite being lovingly maintained by both Sokka and Hakoda, it was definitely showing its age. "I suppose it has… character?" she grinned at Sokka's scowl.

"It will get us where we need to go, that's the most important thing," Sokka chuckled. "Shall we get in and be on our way?" he asked. Suki nodded, circling around the car to open the passenger side door and climb in, placing her duffel bag on her lap. "I thought you'll have more luggage with you," Sokka remarked, starting the engine. It responded with a hoarse and reluctant cough.

"I left most of my stuff back at my hotel in Agna Qel'a," Suki shrugged. "After all, this is only for a couple of days, right? I know most girls can't survive a day's travel without suitcases full of crap, but I'm not one of those girls."

"I've noticed," Sokka smirked at her. "Anyway, how was Agna Qel'a?"

"Not as warm as this!" Suki replied. "Seriously, is this normal for northern coastline summer? This is almost Kyoshi Island weather!"

"Hah, well… yeah, it's hitting low eighties, so it's a bit unusual," Sokka admitted. "But we always get at least one week in summer that's this hot, sometimes even two weeks if we're lucky. Most of the time it's hanging around below seventy, and raining."

"Yeah, that's more what I expected," Suki chuckled. "Anyway, Agna Qel'a was… a little frustrating. Pakku Karetak wasn't so bad, a little grouchy, but after I buttered him up with some compliments, the interview went really smooth. His protégé, though… ugh, that was an entirely different story."

"That Hahn guy?" Sokka frowned. "Yeah, Katara and Yue both can't stand him, and it seems for a good reason."

"I should say so," Suki nodded. "He's a major sleazeball. It's so hard to conduct an interview when every other sentence is a seriously ridiculous pickup line. How the hell am I supposed to edit that, there's barely anything left when I cut out all the crap."

Suki had been sent to Agna Qel'a by The Harmony Ring magazine to conduct interviews with Grandmaster Pakku Karetak and his most talented pupil Hahn Adjuk. After Suki had told Sokka about her assignment, they had decided that after finishing up in the capital, Suki would travel to Cape Kuruk for a few days so that they could hang out together… merely as friends, obviously, or at least that was the intention. Still, Sokka was aware that spending time with a pretty girl like Suki would inevitably send the tongues of the local rumormongers waggling. They were going to try and head off these rumors at the pass by not having Suki stay at the Enuaraq household. Instead, Sokka had rented her a room at the local hostel, even though they both suspected that people would still talk.

He hadn't meant to keep Suki's visit a secret from Yue, however, by the time that Suki had called to tell him about her assignment in Agna Qel'a, Yue had already departed to the Serpent's Lake for the annual summer Pai Sho camp, and Sokka had no means of reaching her there. And he had been open with Yue about keeping in touch with Suki after the U18 finals in Ba Sing Se. It still felt a little weird to Sokka how chill Yue had been about it all, like she didn't view Suki as a threat at all.

But was Suki a threat to his relationship with Yue? Sokka couldn't decide. Things with Yue were kind of confusing as of late. He had selfishly hoped that Yue would react with more jealously towards Suki. Was Yue's lack of reaction a sign that she was starting to tire of him? What Sokka really needed was some clarity with Yue. On a few occasions, Yue had let it slip that she wouldn't walk away from her inheritance just to be with him, which meant that their relationship had an in-built expiry date. Unless he somehow managed to convince Yue to choose him over her father and the family fortune… but was that something he actually dared to do? What could he really offer Yue? The salary of a sawmill worker and a small single room apartment for rent? Didn't Yue deserve better than that?

As he and Suki got ever closer and spent more and more time talking, Sokka had occasionally caught himself wondering if it wouldn't be fairer to simply end things with Yue, considering that they might not have a future together anyway. The plan had one snag, though. While he was coming to like Suki more and more, Sokka still loved Yue. She was not the kind of girl one could easily walk away from. Perhaps it was foolish to hope, but Sokka knew that as stupid as it sounded, if Yue asked him to drop everything and run away with her, he would do so in a heartbeat. He just couldn't be the one to break things off. He needed Yue to do it for him.

"I honestly thought this place would be a lot more barren," Suki said excitedly, busy taking in the sights as they made their way up to the center of the small town and the cheap hostel located next to the postal office. "But I really love what I'm seeing so far. There's something about these forests that look both majestic, but also a little scary."

"It's just some larger than usual firs, nothing scary about that," Sokka laughed. Honestly, he couldn't understand why so many people felt like that about the forests surrounding Cape Kuruk, but while spending time at the local cafeteria he had overheard quite a few tourists gushing about how the local woodlands were 'creepy' and 'haunted'. As a result, some enterprising locals had really leaned into this idea and now there were at least three 'haunted forest walks' that Sokka knew about, meant for gullible tourists.

"Do you think we could go and explore?" Suki turned to him with an excited look on her face.

"Oh, absolutely. That was my plan for tomorrow," Sokka grinned at her. Suki was an extremely outdoorsy kind of person, and Sokka really liked that about her. Yue was a lot more indoorsy in comparison and really enjoyed her creature comforts. Besides, going hiking with Suki was preferable to hanging around the town and giving the local rumormongers reasons to start waggling their tongues. "I hope you have very comfortable walking shoes, by the way," he added.

"These should do the trick," Suki said, lifting her leg and pointing at her sneakers. "So, forest walk on Sunday, but we still have most of the Saturday left. Any plans for that, oh knowledgeable local guide?" she chuckled.

"Well, first we're getting you settled in at the hostel," Sokka replied. "And then, I have another walk in mind. It's a bit challenging, though, about seven miles across uneven terrain either way, so if you're tired…"

"Ha, you wish!" Suki gave him a resolute stare. "I am so accepting your challenge, even without knowing what it is," she added with a laugh.

"I was hoping you would say that," Sokka grinned. "We're going to take a walk along the coast, all the way up to the lighthouse. I've been told that the views are to die for."

"That sounds absolutely amazing," Suki looked really excited. "Wow… I can't thank you enough for agreeing to hang out with me. I still feel a little bit guilty about imposing. I can only imagine how much effort it is for you to both take those courses and work at the sawmill. You probably could have done with a chill and relaxed weekend, instead of going hiking with me."

"Nonsense, I will actually relax more while hiking than being lazy at home and annoying Gran-Gran," Sokka replied. "Besides, your company is worth a lot." Suki blushed lightly at that.

"Well… I just want you to know that I really appreciate it," she said demurely. "Honestly, I have been getting a little worried about how hard you're pushing yourself, Sokka. Working at the sawmill just seems like such a tough job. I wish you could find something easier."

"Don't fret, it's only temporary," Sokka smiled. "I don't plan to do it for the rest of my life, you know. It brings in decent money which I can start setting aside once we get Katara sorted at whatever college or university she ends up enrolling. The family has made its joint decision that we get Katara up on her own feet first, because she honestly has better future prospects than I do. Once she starts bringing home the bacon, I'll have my own turn at a better future."

"And you're perfectly fine with this arrangement?" Suki asked. The Powell truck had come to a halt in front of the hostel, but neither of them had made a move to get out, continuing the conversation. "I mean, if I was in your place, I would probably feel a little bitter towards my sister."

Sokka shrugged. "I'm fine with it. It really is the smart thing to do. Katara is scarily bright, you know? And I just love my little sister," he added with a chuckle. "Even if sometimes she can be a pain in the ass."

"You're a pretty amazing guy, Sokka, and I hope your sister appreciates you," Suki said earnestly, smiling. "I've clearly missed out by being the only child."

"Haha, I don't know about that," Sokka laughed. "It's pretty rare for siblings to get along as well as Katara and I do. It's more likely that you've dodged a massive bullet there. Anyway," he paused, grinning at his friend. "Shall we get you settled in at the five star hostel of Cape Kuruk? Bedbug and roach free for almost a year! No promises about the rats…"

"Sounds… wonderful?" Suki managed with a horrified look on her face. Sokka once again burst into laughter. This had all the makings of being one of the best weekends in a while.

Tho we gotta say goodbye for the summer
Darling I promise you this
I'll send you all my love every day in a letter
Sealed with a kiss

Yes it's gonna be a cold lonely summer
But I'll fill the emptiness
I'll send you all my dreams every day in a letter
Sealed with a kiss

Katara inadvertently blushed at the lyrics of the song blasting on the radio, as it just happened to come up while she was working on her letter to Azula. It was a little too romantic and didn't quite match her current sentiment towards the Fire Nation girl. Though in a way, it wasn't inaccurate either. After all, weren't all letters kind of sealed with a kiss? She wasn't sending her love to Azula, though. Even though she was not blind to how stunningly attractive Azula was, Katara's love was still reserved for Yue. It didn't mean that Katara didn't harbor all sorts of tender feelings for Azula, of course, but they were more of the protective sort. When it came to her Fire Nation friend, the thing Katara wanted the most was to just take care of Azula and keep her safe.

The months of spring and early summer had flown right by Katara. School was as easy as before, and most of her efforts had gone into helping Sokka prepare for acing his finals, which he had done fairly impressively. Katara's time outside of the school activities was dominated by the sometimes up to an hour long phone conversations with both Yue and Azula. They often got so carried away that Katara ended up annoying her own loved ones by completely monopolizing the phone.

Things with Yue stood exactly where they had been before. Katara was still hung up on her low-key pining for the white-haired heiress of the Taqqiq fortunes. Nothing had changed, even though Katara had actually expected things to change due to this new girl, Suki, who had entered the life of her brother. She wasn't sure what was going on with Yue's non-reaction about Sokka clearly starting to get pretty close with this other girl. Now that Katara and Yue were once again sharing a room at Uncle Iroh's Serpent's Lake estate during the summer Pai Sho camp, Katara was determined to interrogate Yue about the matter as soon as possible.

As far as Azula was concerned, it seemed like she was doing better as of late, even if she still remained very evasive about everything that had to do with her father. Being denied the opportunity to help more was very frustrating for Katara, but she consoled herself with the thought that their casual interactions and the long distance Pai Sho sparring was still helping Azula in a way. The only drawback to attending the Pai Sho camp this year was that she had lost her connection to Azula for the entire month of July. She couldn't call Azula, and her Fire Nation friend did not want to call Iroh's estate.

Trying to maintain some way of helping Azula, Katara had asked for permission to send Azula letters, and her friend had agreed that it would be acceptable. Katara was determined to send a letter at least every second day, hoping that it would in a way substitute their phone conversations for Azula. Katara actually found the process of writing letters rather exciting, not to mention that she liked the idea of Azula having something tangible of hers. She still had the clothes that Azula had bought for her to use during their fake date. Katara hadn't done that much growing up, so the clothes still fit her perfectly, even if the mini dress was now revealing even more of her thighs than before. Katara didn't have many opportunities to wear her expensive dress and kitten heels in Cape Kuruk, but she had worn them to Sokka's graduation ball and it had caused mayhem. Most of the local girls did not speak with her for two weeks afterwards. There had been at least three brawls that Katara was aware of between the boys lining up to dance with her. Sokka had been forced to fend off her would be suitors with a stick while escorting her to the car before the ball was even over. Yes, the previous few months had been quite fun.

Katara was nearly done with the letter when the doors to the room she was sharing with Yue opened and her fellow Water Tribe girl stepped inside, smiling at Katara. "Still not done?" she asked. "Are you by any chance composing poetry for Azula?" Yue added with an amused giggle.

"No… I just like to be thorough," Katara briefly withdrew her attention from the letter and turned around to smile at Yue. "I'm almost done, though. Sorry if I'm making you all wait on me."

"Don't worry about that," Yue replied. "Azula might be particularly close with you, but we all consider her a friend. We all approve of you looking out for her, Kat. I think that what you're doing is really sweet. It's so very you," she added, stepping closer and putting her hand on Katara's shoulder, in a quite distracting way.

"Thanks," Katara sighed, feeling relieved. "I was afraid that I might be starting to annoy you by spending so much time on these letters."

"Never fear that," Yue said softly, briefly squeezing Katara's shoulder before removing her hand. "I'm having fun hanging out with Aang and Toph while we're waiting on you to join us. The three of us can decide on what we're going to do in our free time and then you'll have no choice but to go along with it."

"That sounds fair," Katara laughed. "So, what did you decide on for today?"

"It's shaping up to be a really hot day," Yue replied. "We decided to have a beach day at the lakeshore. I could really do with a swim right now."

"Oh, I'm all up for that," Katara nodded excitedly. "Let me just put the finishing touches on this letter. Then I'll dig out my swimsuit and join you at the lake."

"Excellent," Yue grinned. "Well, just keep working on that letter while I slip into my own swimsuit. Now, where did I put it…" she muttered, kneeling by her suitcase and starting to dig through her stuff, some of it still unpacked a week after arrival.

Katara quickly tried to refocus her attention on finishing the letter, describing some of the fun stuff they had been getting up to in the past few days at the camp before signing the letter and drawing a couple of hearts surrounding her name at the bottom of the page. Meanwhile, Yue had managed to track down her swimsuit and was in the process of changing. Even though Yue had turned her back on her friend, she seemed unaware that the mirror on the wall provided Katara with an excellent view of her undressing and slipping into her daring white bikini.

Katara was desperately fighting the desire to steal a glance. And she nearly succeeded, too, allowing herself just one tiny glimpse, but it was enough to make her feel as if she was on fire. Blushing fiercely, Katara then desperately and unsuccessfully tried to put the image of Yue's body out of her mind. Of course, Yue's body would be pure perfection, how could it be anything else? Katara desperately forced herself to get a grip on her distracted state of mind, sealing the letter and finally writing down the address of Azula's Sozin's Island estate where she was staying throughout the summer. "Finally done," Katara exclaimed in relief.

"Good, just in time to tell me how I look," Yue spoke teasingly. Katara turned around to regard the other girl, the wave of intense heat hitting her anew and reflecting in her burning cheeks. Yue was only slightly more dressed than when she had been fully naked. She was wearing one of those quite scandalous two piece swimsuits, a tiny white bikini which contrasted spectacularly with her chocolate creamy skin.

"That's… very nice," Katara somehow managed to say, despite her mouth having become dry like sandpaper.

"Thanks," Yue winked at her. "You know that I like to show off and create a bit of a stir, don't you? You should try it too, sometime."

"Hah, as if I could create a stir with my swimsuit," Katara rolled her eyes. It was painfully old-fashioned in comparison with Yue's modern Lycra bikini. Katara's one-piece swimsuit looked more like a mini dress, not to mention that it was made from a far inferior material and remained uncomfortably wet for a very long time after swimming. She suddenly felt embarrassed about being seen next to Yue while wearing that ancient swimwear of hers.

"Well, actually…" Yue's eyes lit up mischievously. "I had thought of something along those lines, which is why I brought a spare bikini." She held it out for Katara. "Go on. Try it on," she urged.

Katara felt almost as if gripped by a near panic attack. She would be walking around almost like naked. She couldn't do that! Could she? "I… I don't think I can wear that, Yue," she refused to take it.

"What, it's too scandalous for you?" Yue shook her head. "I'm wearing one, as you may have noticed, and I'm not ashamed of it. Come on, don't be such a stick in the mud. You have the perfect bikini body and you know it."

"I… do?" Katara blinked in surprise.

"Hell yes, you do," Yue nodded with conviction, then letting out a sigh. "Seriously, how can you not know how stunning you look, Kat? It's like… I'm always perplexed by that. How can my incredibly hot friend be so oblivious about her good looks?"

Katara's face was burning with dangerous intensity at Yue's words. But they were also giving her the necessary encouragement to try on the bikini. "Well, I guess-" she began before thinking of something. Yue wanted her to try on the bikini. Maybe she could get something in exchange from Yue for it. "Alright, I'll try it on, but on one condition," she said. Yue gave her a curious stare. "You're going to answer a question for me, and you'll do so truthfully."

Yue looked a little uncertain and almost worried for a moment, but then the confidence returned to her smile. "Alright, it's a deal," she nodded.

Katara finally took the bikini, but she was definitely not going to change right there in front of Yue. Instead, she walked over to the bathroom and slipped out of her clothes, remaining naked before putting on the white bikini. Katara was aware that she could be a little prudish at times, but she still couldn't shake off the feeling of being almost completely naked while wearing the bikini. Still… as she admired the result in the wall mirror, Katara had to admit that perhaps Yue hadn't been wrong. Maybe she was underestimating herself. Maybe she just needed a little more confidence. And Yue's compliments were always great for Katara's confidence. If Yue said that she had the body for wearing a bikini, then Katara was willing to believe her best friend.

"Katara, I swear I'm going to drag you out of there myself if you won't come out soon!" she jumped at Yue's voice calling for her from the room.

"Coming!" Katara set her modesty aside and stepped out of the bathroom, blushing as she presented herself to Yue.

"Wow," was all that Yue could manage. Her cheeks had also gone beet red as she stared at Katara, lost for words. "Alright, this is going to be so much fun!" she giggled excitedly. "We are going to absolutely destroy all the guys at the beach."

"I still can't believe I'm signing up for something like this," Katara sighed, shaking her head. Still, she couldn't deny being excited as well. However, when Yue reached out to grab her hand and pull her towards the door, Katara resisted. "Wait a moment," she told her surprised friend. "I wanted to ask you something."

"Oh? Well, shoot," Yue urged her.

"Ever since the start of the camp, you haven't mentioned Sokka once," Katara remarked.

"Well, we had a long chat over the phone right before I left. I thought that he was doing alright. Was I wrong?" Yue shrugged. "Also, was that the question?"

"No," Katara shook her head. "It was leading up to my actual question. You know that Sokka has been getting pretty close with this other girl, Suki. What I want to know is how can you be so chill about that? I don't get it!"

The look on Yue's face at Katara's words could only be described as deeply conflicted. She seemed to be struggling with herself for a long while before finally replying, turning away from facing Katara. "Suki is from Kyoshi Island," Yue began. "Remember how I went to Kyoshi Island a year and a half ago?"

"Yes, it was during the winter holidays," Katara nodded. "Wait, did you meet Suki on Kyoshi Island?"

"I… more than just met her, Katara," Yue said as she sat down on the bed and stared at the floor. "I went out with her, Kat. More than once."

"What?!" Katara exclaimed. She hadn't expected this at all.

"I know… it was a mistake," Yue sighed.

"Why would you do that? I can't believe you cheated on my brother!" Katara couldn't stop herself from becoming upset.

"You haven't seen what Kyoshi Island is like at the peak of the tourist season, Kat. It's full of attractive young people, hooking up all the time. And I was there alone for a couple of weeks, starting to feel like a complete loser, always having to hang out all by myself. And then this cute girl showed up and started to take interest in me, so… yes, I probably shouldn't have done it, but nothing really happened between us, Kat. Nothing serious, at least. It didn't go beyond some kissing. Is that really cheating?" Yue asked, sounding a little defensive, but mostly resigned.

"I think most people would say that yes, that is cheating," Katara did not relent.

"Doesn't it mean that I also cheated on your brother with you?" Yue asked. Katara blushed heatedly. They had agreed to never again bring up that incident, and yet here Yue was doing just that. "I'm going to tell you something, Katara. When we made out in that firewood shed, there was a lot more intensity and passion than I ever had with Suki."

"Don't say that, please," Katara moaned, feeling mortified. "Alright, fine… I guess technically that was also cheating, but at least there was no intent to cheat. You chose to go out with Suki, and you did it several times."

"Alright, fine! I'm a terrible cheat, call me whatever you wish," Yue exclaimed, looking frustrated. "What do you want me to do? Do you think I should tell Sokka now? Imagine how weird that would be for him to find out now that he's hanging out with Suki."

"Hmm, yes, you make a good point," Katara agreed after a moment of thought. "You really should have told him right after coming back from Kyoshi Island."

"Well, I can't undo that mistake now, can I?" Yue sighed. "I was an idiot, alright? I didn't think that this would come back to haunt me, but these things always come full circle, don't they?" Having spoken those words, Yue began to cry. Even though Katara clearly disapproved of what Yue had done, she couldn't stay angry in the face of her best friend's tears. Nor could she condemn Yue too strongly. Not after what they had done the previous summer in the firewood shed.

So, Katara sat down on the bed next to Yue and put a comforting arm around her shoulder, which did feel a little awkward when they were both wearing nothing but their white bikinis. "Are you keeping silent about this to Sokka because Suki has threatened to tell him about your affair?" she asked quietly.

"No, I haven't spoken with Suki since Kyoshi Island," Yue shook her head. "But it's enough to know that she would tell Sokka about us if I started to object to Sokka spending time with her. It's like an unspoken threat that's always there and I can't do anything about it."

"That's terrible," Katara was suddenly overcome with sympathy for her best friend and long time crush, despite all of this being of her own making. "But you know what worries me the most, Yue?"

"You're worried about your brother, obviously," Yue replied, as perceptive as ever.

"Exactly. We're best friends, you and I. But if you do something that really hurts Sokka, I will not forgive you for that, Yue," Katara warned the other girl.

"I would not forgive myself, Kat," Yue sighed, nodding in agreement. "I'll think of something, I swear. Right now, my plan is to simply give Sokka space and allow him to decide who he wants to be with, me or Suki. Do you think that's unfair, Kat?"

"Not necessarily, but I'm not sure Sokka knows that he's been offered this choice," Katara replied. "I think he is still trying to be a loyal boyfriend to you. So even if he might want to be with Suki, he might not make that choice out of loyalty to you. I think you need to make it very clear to him that you're giving him this choice to decide."

"Ugh, you're right… you're absolutely right," Yue sighed. "I promise, I'll sneak into Iroh's office and give Sokka a call later. I've been absolutely awful at handling this. You must have lost all respect for me, Kat, and deservedly so."

"Nonsense, we all make mistakes, Yue," Katara smiled encouragingly, squeezing the other girl's shoulder. "But yes, give Sokka this option to decide, unless you have already made up your mind about breaking up with him."

Yue tensed up next to Katara. "I don't want to break up with Sokka," she managed in a strained voice. "I genuinely care about your brother, Kat."

"Good, that's all I wanted to know, Yue," Katara smiled, feeling more reassured. "Now, shall we put all of this behind us and hit that beach as we had intended?" she asked, Yue giving her a grateful nod as they proceeded to leave their room together, hand in hand.

It was only some time later that it occurred to Katara how Yue had for some reason avoided saying that she loved Sokka, despite her having used the l-word on many occasions before.

Next chapter: More summer shenanigans from Iroh's Pai Sho camp and we also check in with Azula.

Chapter Text

Katara and Yue did manage to create the previously predicted stir when they appeared by the lake wearing identical matching white bikinis that didn't leave all that much to the imagination. Less than a quarter of an hour later, all the boys who had come to spend time at the beach had sought sanctuary in the cold lake water, save for the poor wheelchair-bound Teo. Even Aang had appeared flustered and slightly red in the face, same as Zuko Nakamura, the grouchy nephew of Uncle Iroh.

"Well, congratulations on clearing the beach," Toph grinned at her two friends, lounging on their beach towels nearby. Toph herself was wearing a cute one piece green bikini, which was slightly more modest. She looked over at Teo. "Hey, Teo, I can push your wheelchair into the water if you want me to!" she offered with a giggle.

"Nah, I'm good," Teo replied. He appeared to be reading (or at least was pretending to be reading) the latest issue of The Harmony Ring. "I mean, all you ladies look absolutely stunning, but I have a lot more self-control than those guys," he winked before nodding at the other boys, busy splashing around in the lake.

"Good on you, Teo," Toph chuckled. "That guy is pretty smooth, isn't he?" she whispered to both Yue and Katara.

"I think she likes him," Yue chuckled, leaning close to Katara's ear.

"Aww, that is so cute!" Katara exclaimed with a happy grin on her face. For years she had tried to set Toph up with Aang, but it just wasn't going anywhere and Katara had finally accepted that those two were far more comfortable as friends. Katara wondered if maybe Toph and Teo could be her new pet project of matchmaking. If only she could find someone acceptable for Aang. Meng was still all over him, but Aang did not seem to be at all interested in someone so clingy.

"What are you whispering about, you Water Tribe dorks?" Toph glared at the two older girls. "Anyway, I'm starting to overheat in this sun. Time to go for a swim," she said, getting up from her beach towel and wading into the calm waters of the lake, spectacles on the tip of her nose.

"Let's join her," Yue exclaimed in a voice the brook no arguments as she rose and pulled Katara up with her. Moments later, the two Water Tribe girls dashed past Toph into the water and dove straight in, splashing the smaller girl completely wet and making her break out in expletives.

"Damn you Water Tribe assholes! This isn't funny!" Toph roared at them. "Ugh, this is so cold!" she complained loudly.

"What are you talking about?" Yue laughed, together with Katara already busy swimming around in circles. "This water is ridiculously warm!"

"Well maybe it's warm for you northern savages who spend most of your lives in an ice hole," Toph did not relent. "For me this is uncomfortably cold." She took a few steps back towards the shore, scooping up some of the water and rubbing her arms up to the shoulders and then all over her chest, trying to get used to the cold. Eventually, she took a deep breath and made a daring plunge into the water, screaming aloud as she did so.

"It's not that bad, is it?" Katara asked, once Toph had reemerged from the water.

"Well no, now that I've used to it, it's actually really nice," Toph admitted.

"Good," Katara grinned. She then slammed her palms together, sending a mighty splash of water that hit Toph straight in the face.

"Aah! You jerk! I'm going to get you for this!" Toph shouted, diving for Katara, but the Water Tribe girl was already in motion, smoothly evading the smaller girl and swimming to safety.

"Maybe we should make our escape and wait for her to calm down," Yue laughed, nodding towards the center of the lake.

"Good idea," Katara nodded. "Toph, Yue and I are going to swim ways out, just don't try to follow us, alright? We'll be right back!"

"Yeah, that's right, flee from my wrath!" Toph threatened. "I'll destroy you once you have returned!"

"Alright, we can't wait, Toph," Katara laughed, then following Yue and quickly catching up with her friend as they swam deeper into the lake, much further out than any of the boys ever dared to swim. Both Katara and Yue were excellent swimmers. Swimming was simply a part of the Water Tribe identity, and even the smallest of schools had a swimming pool. Swimming was a regular part of their PE classes and in addition both Yue and Katara were on the swimming team of their respective schools. When Uncle Iroh had first heard of how far they were swimming into the lake, he had become very concerned and had warned them against it, but once they had demonstrated just how accomplished they were as swimmers, it had erased all the concerns Iroh may have had.

"I think this is far enough," Yue eventually stopped after they had been swimming for several minutes straight. Looking back, they could barely see the plank-way stretching into the lake. This was further than they had ever swum out, but neither of them was worried about that. They didn't fear the water. It was their element.

"I have to say, swimming in this bikini is so much more pleasant than in my old swimsuit," Katara admitted as they made lazy circles in the water, relaxing on their backs. "That one used to really weigh me down, but the bikini is not at all obstructive."

"Yes, I noticed that you had a much easier time keeping up with me," Yue chuckled, clearly enjoying herself while pointing out that she was the marginally stronger swimmer out of the pair. "By the way, I want you to keep it. As a gift."

"Really? I couldn't-" Katara just had to offer her token protest, as always.

"Don't be ridiculous," Yue groaned. "Just accept the gifts from your ridiculously rich best friend, alright? Honestly, I'm not spoiling you as much as I should be."

"You're spoiling me way too much, Yue. But alright, I'll take it," Katara acceded. She then broke out in giggles. "Oh dear, I wonder what my dad would say about me wearing a bikini. He was seriously freaking out about the dress I wore to Sokka's prom. You know, the one Azula got for me."

"Seriously? It's not even that bad!" Yue laughed.

"Not according to my dad," Katara rolled her eyes. "I had to listen to a monologue about young people these days, the lack of modesty, and what is this world coming to. Sometimes I feel that even Gran-Gran is a little more open minded than my dad."

"Hah! Well, I have no idea what my father would actually think about me wearing a bikini, I don't tell him these things and he leaves me well alone," Yue replied. There was another side to this statement which remained unsaid, however, and they both knew it. Arnook Taqqiq might be allowing his daughter more freedom now, but it was only because once she came of age, she would have to submit to the choices made by her father or risk losing her inheritance. This wasn't a fun topic for discussion, however, so they never really talked too much about it. "Anyway, I think we should start heading back before someone becomes worried," Yue said then.

"That's probably a good idea," Katara said, and the two of them swiftly made their way back towards the direction of the shore. Most of the other kids were already out of the water, save for Toph who was waiting on them, and Zuko Nakamura, swimming nearby. As Katara and Yue swam ever closer Toph dove under the water, probably looking to ambush one of the Water Tribe girls.

Toph emerged a good few yards away from Katara, looking and sounding distressed. "I can't see a thing!" she exclaimed. "I lost my glasses!"

"Damn it," Yue cursed. "I thought it was a bad idea for you to dive with your glasses on."

"Oh gee, that's really helpful to know after I've lost them!" Toph raged, appearing greatly frustrated. "I need to find my glasses, I can barely see which way the shore is!" she said, about to dive back under the water.

"Wait! Toph, don't!" Katara tried to stop her. This was actually a really bad idea, because they were deep enough in the lake where the water was a good few inches above Toph's head. And Toph wasn't the best of swimmers, so having her blindly search for her glasses on the lake bed was quite dangerous. "Toph, I'm going to take you to the shore. Yue can stay and look for your glasses, and I'll come back to help her. It would be a lot safer for you to get out now that you can barely see."

Katara could see that Toph wanted to protest and stay to search herself. Still, despite feeling angry at herself and probably the whole world, the younger girl decided to listen to voice of reason. "Alright, fine… but you better find them!" Toph exclaimed irately. "Like an idiot, I didn't pack my spare pair, ugh!"

As Katara began to lead Toph back ashore, Zuko swam up to them, alerted by the commotion. "What happened?" he asked, sounding concerned. It was the first time Katara had observed him being concerned on someone else's behalf.

"I lost my glasses, alright?" Toph fumed as she was being guided ashore by Katara. "Ha-ha, very funny, please proceed with the laughter."

Zuko looked slightly taken aback by her words. "I don't think that's funny at all," he said. "In fact, I'm going to help you look for them. Did you lose them somewhere around here?" he pointed at where Yue was swimming around, diving in and emerging soon after, currently without any success.

"Yes, they should be around here," Yue replied. "You're welcome to help, Zuko," she added with a smile.

"Don't worry, Toph, we'll find your glasses," Katara tried to sound comforting as she led Toph back ashore.

"Save it, Sugar Queen, I know it's unlikely. They've probably been carried away already," Toph snapped at her. "Or maybe some stupid fish is already wearing my glasses while having a good laugh about me being a dumbass." Katara tried not to giggle about the absurd mental image of a laughing fish with spectacles, focusing on helping Toph get safely out of the water. Once they were close enough to the shore, Katara allowed Toph to make the rest of the way out on her own, immediately turning around to head back in and help with the search. Much to her surprise, she saw that Yue and Zuko were already on their way towards the shore as well.

"Hey, Toph, look what Zuko has for you!" Yue cheered once they were all back out of the water.

"Here you go, Beifong," Zuko passed Toph's glasses back to her.

"And he found them on his first dive in, too," Yue gave the older boy a grateful smile. "It's pretty impressive how long you can hold your breath under the water, Zuko."

"Yeah, thanks," Toph nodded. She looked a little uncomfortable as she stared up at the older boy. "Sorry about snapping at you. I was angry at myself, not you."

"Oh," Zuko remarked. He then shrugged. "Well, whatever," he said, about to walk away.

"Hey, wait up, Zuko!" Katara called after him, having sat down with Yue on their beach towels to dry themselves in the scorching rays of the sun. "Want to hang out with us?" she asked.

Zuko looked perplexed. "Why? I thought you hated me," he said, trying to sound indifferent.

"Nah, you're cool," Aang said, sunbathing his back nearby. "Everyone at this camp is cool, and that includes you." Aang literally could not hold a grudge against anyone even if he tried, which was why he got along with just about everyone. It was why Katara was so fond of her young friend.

"Yeah, you found my glasses, that makes you cool in my book," Toph echoed Aang's sentiments.

"Uh… alright then, I guess," Zuko managed, still sounding a little indecisive. "I'll go grab my towel," he then said, walking off to where he had lounged previously, all by himself.

"What?" Katara asked, having noticed that Yue was staring at her and smiling. "He's just been looking so lonely and unhappy this year. I think he could use some friends," Katara shrugged. Yue's grin only intensified as she reached out and gave Katara a quick hug.

Katara hadn't gotten off to a good start with Zuko this year either. Their first conversation had ended with him mocking her for the way she had lost the U18 title in the final round, to which she had shot back that it was still less embarrassing than Zuko's own final round collapse a year before that. But aside from that unpleasantness, Katara was feeling pretty bad for Zuko this year. Jin was no longer with him at the camp, so she figured that they must have split up. Overall, Zuko just looked rather depressed and even Uncle Iroh appeared more concerned for his nephew than before. Obviously, Katara knew that she couldn't take up the task of helping both Nakamura siblings at once, especially when they seemed to hate each other so much, but if she could at least include Zuko in some of their activities and cheer him up, well, surely she could manage such a small act of kindness?

"So!" Aang began excitedly once Zuko had returned to join them, laying out his beach towel a respectable distance away. "Nice job winning among the big guys, Zuko! How tough are the U21's?"

"I'm sure you've all heard about how it's so easy," Zuko replied. "Well, it's not easy at all, even if I found U18's to be a lot tougher. But hardly anyone from my age group made the switch to the pro circuit. Well, that Zirin girl tried, but it went about as well as I expected. She wasn't particularly talented, so I don't know what she was thinking. I think it's a good lesson for everyone who tries to make the switch too early."

"What happened with this Zirin person?" Toph wanted to know.

"Well, she just didn't cut the mustard at the pro level," Zuko shrugged in reply. "I heard that she has retired from Pai Sho altogether now."

"Ouch, that's sad," Aang sighed. "But if you're not turning pro-"

"I'm not," Zuko shook his head. "I mean, I was really tempted to, but uncle talked me out of it, and I think he was right to do so. Winning the title helped. So I'll be playing juniors for two more years."

"And you'll probably be an even stronger favorite next year," Aang continued. "Some of the older boys and girls can no longer play junior, and you're getting Chan, Ruon-Jian and Ghashiun from the U18 bracket."

"Three easy wins," Zuko snorted.

"Do you know if anyone else is thinking about turning pro?" Yue asked.

"I talked with Haru after the tournament," Zuko replied. "He was thinking about it. I'm not sure he's actually going to do it. And what about all of you? What are your plans after turning eighteen?" he asked, looking at Yue and Katara in particular. He then seemed to realize that he had been staring for too long, and turned away with a slight blush on his cheeks. Katara thought that it was kind of cute. She wasn't into boys, but still, knowing that a handsome older boy like Zuko thought that she and Yue were hot, was pretty exciting and flattering.

"I'm definitely planning to combine full time studies with remaining a junior," Katara replied.

"What are you going to study?" Zuko asked.

"Medicine," Katara replied with conviction. "I've always wanted to become a surgeon." That wasn't exactly true, not the always part. She had made that decision because of those painful flashbacks of her nine year old self standing over her mother's lifeless form, the paramedics unable to do anything but to cover her broken body to shield it from Katara's eyes. She had hated that feeling of helplessness. If only someone had been at the scene sooner, someone capable of helping her mom, perhaps she could have been saved. She hadn't been able to save her mom, in fact she had a very good reason to blame herself for Kya's death. And Katara knew that she could rid herself of that guilt only by dedicating her life to saving others.

"What about you, Taqqiq?" Zuko turned to Yue.

"It's Yue," she corrected him with a smile. The smile, however, faded quickly. "And I couldn't say what I'm going to do once I turn eighteen. I simply don't have an idea," Yue sighed. Katara understood perfectly what she was talking about, slipping a comforting arm around her friend's shoulder. Yue was dependant on her father's decisions, and they might not involve either Pai Sho, or being able to attend a college or university to pursue higher education. Katara was almost glad not to be rich if it meant being unable to make her own choices. It was times like these when she felt really bad for Yue.

"I know that my parents will want me to get a degree, so I won't be turning pro at eighteen," Toph mused. "And I already know what I want to study. Geology is the coolest thing there is."

"Toph loves rocks! Toph loves rocks!" Aang began to sing, a grin on his face. Toph growled and grabbed the nearby volleyball, throwing it at Aang. It struck the Air Nation boy right across the face, leaving an imprint across his brow. "Ow," Aang said, the song dying on his lips.

"You asked for it, little buddy," Zuko chuckled. Katara decided that a smile suited him well. "Even I know not to cross Beifong."

"Well, you're smarter than I am," Aang chuckled, never one to remain down for long. "Anyway, I'll probably remain with the juniors and study as well, but it's not decided yet. Gyatso doesn't have the money to send me to the best universities like Caldera or Ba Sing Se. However, if I can ace my finals, I might get a decent enough state scholarship to go and study abroad. Fingers crossed!"

"You can do it, Aang, I know you can," Katara gave him an encouraging smile.

"Yeah, I think I should be able to qualify for scholarship," Aang smiled back at her. "I would really like to go to BSSU. They have the best program for electrical engineering. It's the kind of stuff that really interests me and that the people back home could really benefit from. The Air Nation power grid is a steaming mess of yak poop."

"Zuko, you're attending BSSU as well, right?" Katara asked. Zuko nodded at her, again avoiding looking directly at her for too long. "I never asked what you're studying."

"Law," Zuko replied. "Not thrilling, I know. But it comes easy to me. And there's solid money to be had. It could be a good way to supplement myself if the Pai Sho career doesn't work out the way I would like."

"Sounds like a smart decision," Katara said. She wanted to say something about them all having solid plans for the future, but fortunately she remembered Yue's uncertain situation just in time. In fact, it looked as if Yue was suddenly feeling really down, probably from listening about the others talking about their exciting future plans, when she wouldn't even control her own future.

"Things are going to work out, Yue, you'll see," Katara whispered to her friend, leaning closer to hug her. "And remember, whatever happens, I'll stand by you, always and forever."

"Thanks, Kat," Yue whispered back at her, sounding grateful. Seeing the smile reappearing on Yue's lips, Katara felt relieved. It seemed that her mission to keep everyone around her happy and smiling remained on track.

Azula settled in comfortably on top of a square bale of hay in the stables, leaning in against another bale and ignoring the few errant stems pricking the back of her neck. While Azula did like her high society creature comforts, she still enjoyed hanging out at the stables even after she was done with her beloved horses. It was also a place where she loved to come and read the letters that Katara sent her every other day. She had tried to tell her Water Tribe friend that she didn't have to do this, and that she would be perfectly fine during the month of no contact with Katara. But once the letters began to arrive at Sozin's Island, they instantly became the highlight of Azula's quiet and introspective summer, one of the few rare things she was looking forward to.

Overall, things weren't too bad for her. She had recovered completely (at least physically) by the end of May, her bruised ribs the last to heal. The lacerations had healed well and only a couple of very vague marks remained, the doctor promising that they would also fade with time. Ozai was still in this weird and almost a little creepy apologetic and conciliatory mode, which was something Azula had not witnessed before, and did not expect to last. Azula spent days trying to understand why her father was acting this way, and she had come up with a theory. All the beatings prior to this latest one, Ozai had handed out in a very measured and controlled way. Back in spring, however, he had simply gone berserk on her. Perhaps he was freaking out about having lost control and nearly doing permanent damage to his most prized piece of property? That seemed the most likely explanation to Azula.

So, Ozai mostly let her be over these past three months of spring and summer. Azula was definitely grateful for this reduced contact with her father, and when they did meet, he was actually… nice towards her. There were plenty of gifts, generous checks for her to spend as she pleased, and most importantly, her red Alpha Romeo Spider had been repaired and returned to the garage for her use. Since the car had been returned just as she was about to depart for the Sozin's Island residence, Azula hadn't actually been able to go for a drive yet, but she was definitely looking forward to it once she went back to Caldera City. So, things were almost unnaturally good for Azula right now, but she was well aware that it would remain this way only until the next time when she would inevitably disappoint her father.

The one thing Azula was reasonably confident about was that this disappointment would not come from her Pai Sho performance. Her father had relaxed his involvement in her training, and he had also stopped sending Zhao to annoy her. When Azula sparred with her father, he appeared impressed about the progress she had made without his aid. Ozai still hadn't found out about her friendship with Katara, and Azula was determined to keep it that way. Her long distance sparring with Katara had sharpened Azula's skill to a completely new level. Of course, it had done the same to Katara, so Azula knew that come the next spring, she would have only one serious competitor for the title. And with the tournament being held on home soil, in the Fire Fountain City, Azula was determined to prevail.

Eventually, Azula pushed all of these thoughts aside, deciding to finally focus on the letter that had arrived this morning. She had been dying to open it for hours, while at the same time denying herself from doing so, just to shorten the wait before receiving the next letter. But now she could wait no longer, quickly opening the letter and removing the two sheets of paper, covered with Katara's slightly scraggly and at times chaotic handwriting.

In the first part of the letter, Katara wrote about all the things she had done over the previous days, which consisted of plenty of Pai Sho practice combined with other activities either at her uncle's vast Serpent's Lake estate or in nearby Ba Sing Se. Katara always started and finished these passages with an apology about having so much fun when she knew that Azula was suffering from loneliness at her estate. Honestly, Azula did not begrudge Katara for having fun. Her Water Tribe friend deserved it. She didn't even want to think what these past months would have felt without this contact with Katara, which often felt like a lifeline. Katara deserved so much of Azula's gratitude for being there for her. Azula only wished she could find the words to actually express what she felt.

'I wish you could be here with me and my friends, even though I know that you don't want anything to do with your uncle,' Katara wrote in her letter. Yes, Azula longed to spend time with Katara, and her friends as well. She would probably suffer enduring the presence of her uncle for that. And honestly, that Pai Sho camp sounded like a lot of fun. There was freedom to do what they wanted, within reason, certainly more than what Azula could get away with while she remained in the care of her father. Not to mention the company of Katara. Even her friends were not annoying… no, they were actually pretty awesome, each in their own unique way, Toph with her no nonsense attitude and casual swearing, Aang with his chillness and unflappable optimism, and Yue, just an all around classy girl like her, minus the social awkwardness.

'I know that I am probably overstepping by saying this, but Azula, I am firmly convinced that your uncle would do his best to stand up for you and protect you, should you ever make the decision to walk away from your father,' Katara also wrote towards the end of the letter. At first, Azula felt a little ticked off when she read this passage. It wasn't Katara's place to butt into her family matters, damn it!

But Katara's words still got Azula thinking. What was she mad at her uncle about, anyway? She had revised her opinion about her father, so perhaps it was time to do the same towards her uncle? She had never hated Iroh the way she hated Ursa and Zuko. Iroh had testified in the court against her father, but he hadn't been there when Zuko's face had been burnt. Azula reasoned that he was only reciting what Ursa had told him. Ursa and Zuko had lied about her father in front of the Fire Nation court, telling a flagrant untruth that had made Azula so incensed at the time. Ursa had given up on her, but Iroh didn't really have any claim on her, did he? Not when both of her parents were still alive and retained their formal rights over her.

So why was she mad at Iroh again? Because he had sided against her father and had perpetuated a lie. But it was very possible that Iroh didn't know that he had been told a lie. And also, siding against her father had felt like a terrible crime when Azula was ten, but it certainly did not seem like a crime now. Azula supposed that she was also mad at Iroh for abandoning the Fire Nation and going into exile, but was this really a choice he had made? It probably just followed his decision to stand up to his brother. He would have no future in the Fire Nation after that. As many people loved to say, Ozai Nakamura was the Fire Nation, and the Fire Nation was Ozai Nakamura. Again, it became hard to blame her uncle for his supposed lack of patriotism.

With the curtain of long perpetuated hatred starting to clear, Azula began to remember long suppressed memories of her childhood, memories that reflected well on her uncle and memories that she had tried to bury because they hadn't matched with the narrative of the scheming, vile conspirator serving the interests of Ursa and Zuko. Her uncle had always been supportive when he discovered her interest and penchant for Pai Sho. He had spent hours on end playing with her and Zuko, and Azula could not remember feeling like he had been playing favorites at the time, preferring Zuko over her. He had even brought Lu Ten with him every time when visiting, so that when Iroh was facing off against Zuko, Azula would get to play against Lu Ten. And he had given her several beautiful Pai Sho tile sets on her birthdays. How could she just selectively ignore all these memories?

And then there was the tragic death of Lu Ten in an army training accident. The investigation had revealed the rot and general air of malaise that had set into the Fire Nation armed forces, but it had failed to identify any specific individual that could be held accountable and prosecuted for the tragic accident. Iroh had been left outraged and depressed in the wake of these tragic events. It had all happened only two weeks before the divorce proceedings between her parents. Perhaps it was no wonder that Iroh's thoughts had been elsewhere during the court case.

So, perhaps Azula actually didn't have a reason to hate her uncle. That was a weird thought to get used to. She supposed that she needed time to become comfortable with it. Azula also wasn't sure what it really meant for the future. It wasn't like she could flee from her father right now. The courts would simply force Iroh to hand her back to Ozai, and perhaps even slap her uncle with kidnapping charges.

Did Katara mean after she had turned eighteen? Just give up on the Nakamura fortune and flee to her uncle, begging Iroh to take her in? Why would he? She'd have nothing to her name if she did that, so she would be just one more ungrateful mouth to feed. Was Iroh obliged to help just because she was family? She hadn't been much of a family these past seven years of rabid hatred. Besides, perhaps Katara didn't realize this, but Iroh was tight with Ursa and Zuko, particularly with Zuko. And Ursa and Zuko would not stand for Iroh taking her in. No, if Iroh didn't hate her already, Ursa and Zuko would poison Iroh against her, that was a given. She didn't really see how her uncle could provide her with any sort of sanctuary, even after she had come of age. Katara meant well, but she was mistaken. There was no way out, or if there was, Azula didn't think it lay with her uncle.

Still… she had arrived at the realization that maybe she didn't actually hate her uncle after all. She just didn't know whether it counted for anything.

Next chapter: It's the fall again, our girls have turned seventeen, and it's time to qualify for the final stab at the U18 title.

Chapter Text

The start of another year of competition found Katara in a state of elevated anxiety. Just like her two best friends, Azula and Yue, Katara had recently turned seventeen and within a year's time, big changes loomed on horizon for all three of them. For Katara it meant the start of college or university life, moving out of Cape Kuruk and most likely heading to Ba Sing Se, as well as making a switch to play in the final bracket of juniors, fighting for the U21 title.

None of these upcoming changes particularly frightened Katara. Her anxiety stemmed more from the uncertainty about the futures of her two best friends. She still spoke on the phone every day with Azula, and nearly every day with Yue, and they remained as close as ever. Katara was glad that Yue had followed her advice to try and be more open in her relationship with Sokka. However, Katara had been surprised by the results it had produced. She had thought that Yue was seriously considering breaking up with Sokka so that he could be with Suki, particularly because Yue herself admitted that their relationship didn't really have a future.

It was then surprising to Katara when early in August Sokka had told her that he and Suki had agreed to put their almost-more-than-friendship on indefinite hold. Sokka had then taken a week of vacation to travel to Agna Qel'a and spend time with Yue to iron out any bumps left in their relationship. Sokka had appeared happy but annoyingly tight-lipped upon his return and Katara hadn't been able to pry any details out of Yue either, despite her best friend claiming that there would be no secrets between them. Having pondered about the reason for this secrecy, Katara could only think of one thing. Sokka and Yue must have taken their relationship to the next level of intimacy. Not that there was anything wrong as such if they had slept together. Sokka was eighteen and Yue was a year younger, they were old enough to make this choice. Katara just hated how it made her feel, envious and bitter, annoying inner voice telling her to finally bury her hopes of getting with Yue for good.

However, this wasn't the end of the relationship drama of Katara's teenage years. Come the end of October, Katara had once again traveled to Agna Qel'a to take part in the Water Tribe qualification tournament for the next year's finals in the Fire Fountain City. Just like the previous year, Yue had invited Katara to stay with her at the Taqqiq mansion for the two weeks of tournament play. With how happy Sokka had been having returned from Agna Qel'a, Katara had expected to find Yue in high spirits as well, but instead, she was surprised to find her best friend gloomy and downcast. More worryingly, Yue had continued to insist that nothing was wrong and that she was just feeling a little anxious about the uncertainty of her future, hanging over her like a great weight. And Katara could understand that, Yue was in almost as rough a spot as Azula. However, Katara also couldn't help but feel that maybe Yue was starting to have second thoughts about continuing her relationship with Sokka. It was hard to say, because Yue seemed determined to remain silent about it all.

At least all of this turmoil didn't affect their level of play. Hahn Adjuk was playing at the U21 level, and he was doing it so poorly that his mentor, Grandmaster Pakku Karetak, had announced a split in their partnership, Pakku loudly and publicly denouncing Hahn as the laziest and most irritating protégé he had ever had to deal with. With Hahn not competing in their age bracket, Katara and Yue had very little in the way of competition. They had taken note of two emerging talents, fifteen year old siblings Nutha and Niyok Waska. Nutha and Niyok had played very well for late bloomers, but Katara and Yue both had pristine records after eight rounds of play, with the others lagging at least two points behind. With qualification assured, Katara and Yue had already agreed to settle for an amicable draw in the final round as there was no reason to expend any extra energy.

And while Katara always loved spending time with Yue, she had to admit that this year things had changed between them and she was blaming Yue's reluctance to be open with her. Katara had also observed another development when they were having dinner together with Arnook Taqqiq, Yue's father. Yue had become considerably colder towards her father when compared to Katara's previous visit a year ago. Yue still remained outwardly polite, but every word she exchanged with her father seemed to be dripping with bitterness. Again, Yue would refuse to tell Katara whether it was simply being robbed of freedom to make her own life choices that bothered her more and more, or was it something other than that.

Then, on the eve of the final round of tournament play, another curious event took place. Just as they were already on their way to have their usual evening meal in the presence of Yue's father, one of the estate servants interrupted them to inform the two girls that Arnook Taqqiq was receiving important visitors from the Earth Kingdom, and that their dinner would be served in the vast estate kitchens. Having made their way to the kitchen, Yue left Katara waiting at the table and went over to speak with the staff, trying to find out more about these unexpected visitors. The estate staff was always up with the latest gossip and they all as one loved their precious white-haired princess, happy to share what they knew.

"So?" Katara asked expectantly upon Yue's return. "Did you learn anything?"

"I most certainly did," Yue nodded. "It's no wonder that my father didn't want us to mingle with his guests. They're his most important business partners in the Earth Kingdom, Lao Beifong and Long Feng."

"Oh?" Katara's eyes widened. "Toph's dad and Joo Dee's dad? I wonder what they're talking about!"

"World domination, just the usual," Yue shrugged. "Throw Ozai Nakamura and his empire into the mix and you can see how these people become actual kingmakers."

"It's really sick, the amount of power and influence these rich puppet masters have, I know," Katara sighed. "I don't meant to talk ill about your father, but-"

"He's part of the problem," Yue nodded. "You don't have to tell me."

They spent the next while eating in silence. The cook and her staff seemed so happy to have their princess in the kitchen with them, that they kept bringing out more and more treats for them, until the two dangerously bloated girls had to beg the helpful cook to take pity on them. Groaning and feeling a little queasy, they began to make their way back towards their rooms at the other end of the estate, but at least walking and climbing the stairs helped to settle their stomachs somewhat. Stopping briefly at the second floor mezzanine, the two girls suddenly heard loud male voices nearby, almost loud enough for them to overhear.

"Are they in the dining hall?" Katara asked. She was feeling a little confused. "I wouldn't have thought it would be possible to overhear it from here."

Yue looked thoughtful, then snapping her fingers. "No, they're out on the balcony. Long Feng and Lao Beifong are heavy smokers," she said, then thinking of something, a dangerous glint in her eyes. "Want to listen in?" Yue suggested.

"Hell yes," Katara immediately agreed without thinking. Yue grabbed her hand and dragged her all the way up the stairs to the second floor and into the trophy room, adjacent to the dining hall. They silently tiptoed up to the window and Yue opened a tiny gap, careful not to make a sound. It was enough for them to easily overhear the conversation from the balcony right next to them.

"…-daughters, eh?" one of the men, either Lao Beifong or Long Feng spoke, sounding amused. "I still have to laugh how all four of us have a single offspring and wouldn't you know it, a daughter. Certainly adds a complication, right?"

"That's Lao Beifong," Yue whispered in Katara's ear. "When he says 'four of us', he's including Ozai Nakamura." Katara nodded wordlessly.

"Well, not everything is that simple with sons either, you still want them to marry well," Long Feng said. "Or at the very least, not be complete and utter failures, like Ozai's disowned whelp."

"Of course, but at least if a son makes a stupid choice, everything still stays in the family. Daughters need more care and attention to handle and control, and you also want a proper marriage contract to protect the family in case things don't work out," Arnook lectured. "But marry them well, and you can reap in quite the reward."

"Speaking from experience, Arnook?" Lao asked, chuckling.

"Well, it's not a done deal yet, but if the Adjuks put ink on the contract, my grandchildren will have twice the wealth that I have right now," Arnook replied. "I'm confident we'll sort it out. They act like they can do better for their precious Hahn, but I see through their bullshit. They really want Yue for their son. They just want me to make more concessions before they sign." At these horrible words, Katara reached out to pull Yue into a hug, having noticed that the other girl had began to tremble.

"Smart businessman," Lao Beifong sounded approving. "I'm glad I won't have to deal with this for a few more years. Toph doesn't seem to have any interest in dating whatsoever."

"Careful with that, Lao," Long Feng warned. "You might think that, when suddenly, one day she'll run off with some handsome vagabond, and you'll be left holding the bag. Keep an eye on that one, mark my words."

"I think Toph will be happy to marry just about anyone we choose for her, because she will just ignore her husband after marriage and continue to pursue her own interests. Nobody's going to succeed at controlling her, that much I know," Lao replied. "That girl is so headstrong. I don't know where she gets it from, certainly not from me or Poppy. It must be a recessive trait, I'm telling you, but fortunately for us, our little girl is highly susceptible to reverse psychology."

"At least I don't have any such worries," Long Feng remarked. "Joo Dee is the most obedient child I could have hoped for. It's like she has no other interests than to obey and please me."

"Ozai would be so jealous to hear you say that," Arnook chuckled.

"Indeed, we have had a few interesting conversations about parenting," Long Feng sounded amused. "I always thought that his methods with Azula were crude. But it's typical Ozai. He has the charm and the manners, but underneath, he remains a petty bully and a brute."

"Be careful with your words, my friend," Lao added warningly. "But yes, Ozai's plans for his daughter are uncomfortable to say the least. He has always treated Zhao like a family member, almost a half-brother." Katara felt herself tremble at those words, letting out a horrified gasp, but fortunately, Yue slammed her palm across Katara's mouth just in time.

"Not to mention that he's more than twice Azula's age," Arnook nodded. "That's just not right. I can understand that he wants to play things safe, but still-"

"It really feels like keeping it in the family, doesn't it?" Long Feng sounded disapproving. "I honestly think that Ozai would marry his own daughter if he thought he could get away with it. And with the amount of influence he has, I wouldn't be surprised if he tries."

Katara tensed in Yue's arms like a coiled spring, nearly breaking free from the other girl's embrace. For a moment, all Katara saw was red. She felt like she wanted nothing more than to grab the first sharp object she could find, charge those disgusting men and slash and stab them without any considerations. Yue must have sensed how upset she was, because she kept holding on as tightly as she could.

"Creepy," Lao Beifong remarked. "Anyway, it's getting chilly out here. Let's head back inside so that I can show off Toph's gold medal some more." With that, the three men returned to the dining hall, leaving Yue and Katara to stare at each other in disbelief, both of them wishing they had never heard any of that disturbing conversation.

"Spirits, I can't believe what I just heard," Katara was so perturbed she could barely speak. "They were discussing their own children, their daughters, like some pieces of meat, trading chips in forming alliances!"

"Now you know how I feel," Yue ground out, also looking deeply upset. "Despite how many assurances my father gives me about how he cares for my happiness, I know that he doesn't mean any of it. I mean… I don't think he wants me to be miserable, he has simply deluded himself to the point where he earnestly believes that I'm going to be just fine in an arranged marriage."

"I'm sorry, I'm not normally like this, but I really want to hurt those men for what they were saying," Katara began to sob. "Spirits, what they said about Azula and Ozai's plans for her…"

"Yeah," Yue looked very uncomfortable at that. "But let's get back to my room so that we can talk safely. I feel like screaming, and I can't very well do that in here. We'll be overheard."

Having snuck out of the trophy room, the two girls quickly made their way to Yue's room in the left wing of the estate. For a while, they said nothing, simply sitting on Yue's bed, embraced and comforting each other as they tried to process the upsetting conversation they had overheard.

"Azula is going to call me once I get back to Cape Kuruk," Katara sighed when they were once again able to speak without the danger of tearing up. "Spirits, I am so not looking forward to telling her something this horrific. But she needs to know this, doesn't she? Surely I have to warn her of Ozai's plans, right?" Yue nodded decisively at that. "I wonder if she actually knows, already. But I doubt it, even if she has always been tightlipped when it comes to her father."

"Kat, you have to understand that she might not be willing to speak about it not merely because she's uncomfortable or embarrassed," Yue said. "She might be unwilling to endanger you."

"What do you mean?" Katara asked.

"Well, there's a rumor that Ozai Nakamura occasionally makes people disappear. People who know too much about him and his affairs," Yue explained. "And that's not actually an idle rumor. I overheard my father mentioning it on the phone, so there's surely a grain of truth to it. That's why I've been a little worried about you and Azula becoming so close."

"It's not going to stop me from trying to help her, Yue," Katara insisted passionately. "It wouldn't stop me from looking out for you," she added, blushing.

"I know," Yue smiled softly at her. "You are loyal to a fault, Kat, which just one of the many reasons why I love you."

Katara felt the heat intensify in her cheeks. "I hate the fates your parents have in store for both you and Azula, and I'll never stop supporting the two of you," she said with fierce determination. "Is there anything you can do, Yue? Any way you could resist your father? Or will you just passively accept your fate?"

"What can I reasonably do?" Yue sighed. "I can't do anything until I come of age, but even then, my father is simply going to use my inheritance as a leverage to force me to do what he wants."

"Is walking away an option?" Katara asked.

"I've been thinking about it more and more," Yue admitted. "And I'm not sure I want to do it. Struggling with poverty, I don't think I could deal with it. Maybe I could handle a vain asshole like Hahn. I could manipulate him into doing what I want, or just convince him to leave me alone and go cavort with other women. Arranged marriages sometimes work out just fine, I've learned as much from my history classes," Yue said, although to Katara it sounded like she was trying awfully hard to convince herself. "On many occasions, clever and ambitious women have managed to secure a great deal of autonomy for themselves, while controlling their weak puppet husbands. I could probably do that with Hahn."

"I really wish you wouldn't even consider that," Katara looked disapproving. "It just doesn't seem right, there's something icky about acting like that."

There was a slight glimpse of frustration across Yue's features, but then she smiled at her friend. "Of course you would feel that way, Kat," she said kindly. "But I don't know if I can just walk away, even when I come of age. I just haven't been given the tools to survive on my own. I don't know how to cook, clean or sew. I don't know how to drive a car."

"I can teach you everything you would need to survive, Yue," Katara said with determination. "Well… except for driving a car. At least not well. But Sokka could teach you that. You could stay with us and then-"

"Hold it right there," Yue brought a finger up to Katara's lips, stopping the flow of words. "That's not going to work, and we're not even going to consider it. Remember how I said that I'm worried about you endangering yourself by hanging out with Azula? Well, if I were to flee to live with your family, I would be endangering you all just as much."

"Surely your father wouldn't-"

"No, my father isn't the type to hire thugs, but there's an angle you are not considering," Yue interrupted her again. "If I walked away from that arranged marriage with Hahn, the Adjuk family would see it as a great insult. And the Adjuk family, Katara… they are brutal people. The things I have heard about the treatment of their workers at the gold mines up north? They're horrible. The Adjuks would be more than comfortable to hire some goons to do terrible things to you and your family, if they found you harboring me. You can't shelter me. And similarly, you couldn't shelter Azula."

"Screw this!" Katara exclaimed with a very uncharacteristic curse. "I hate everything about this situation!" she added, landing with her back on the bed. "I hate it when I can't do anything to help and everything seems hopeless. It's not fair!"

"You're helping so much already, Kat. I'm so grateful to have you, and I'm sure so is Azula," Yue smiled at her, reaching out to squeeze her shoulder. "Seriously, I don't know what I would do if I didn't have you in my life. The future is bearable largely because I know I will still be able to count on you for support."

"Of course, I will always be there for you, Yue. Always," Katara said with steely determination. "Yue?" she looked up from the bed. "How does Sokka fit into all of this?"

"He doesn't," Yue sighed. "That's the problem."

"Is that one of the reasons why you've been so gloomy?" Katara asked.

Yue glanced at her, looking conflicted and reluctant. "Yeah," she eventually admitted. "I've been feeling really guilty about maintaining a relationship that has no future."

"You were clear with him on that point, right?" Katara needed to know.

"Of course I was!" Yue bristled slightly. "I swear, I was actually trying to subtly discourage him and push him towards Suki, but Sokka wouldn't hear of it. He claimed that he loved me and wanted to be with me for as long as I would have him. The lovable fool… he's as loyal as you are, Kat."

"That sounds like Sokka, alright," Katara sighed. "Still, if this makes you so miserable, maybe you should have just-" she suddenly cut herself off, having realized how bad what she was about to say sounded, considering her own bias in the matter.

"Maybe I should have just ended it with Sokka, right?" Yue gave Katara a serene smile. "Yeah, maybe I should have. And maybe I will. I'm thinking about it. It just feels like I'm stringing him along for no reason when he deserves so much more."

"I'm sure you'll make the right decision in the end," Katara smiled back at her best friend. She really didn't want to be the horrible sister and push Yue to break up with her own brother, even if it was a relationship that would only end in tears for both Sokka and Yue. Considering what Katara had learned about Yue's future prospects, any romantic relationship between them appeared doomed.

Unless… unless she could somehow convince Yue to walk away from her father. Katara didn't think much of the warnings given by Yue. The Adjuks sending armed thugs to intimidate or attack her family? What was this, the Dark Ages? Surely, that sort of thing was no longer happening. No, surely the right course of action was to convince both Yue and Azula to break free from the oppressive grasp of their parents, Katara was more certain of that now than ever before.

It was the first Saturday of the month of November when Azula finally made another long distance call to the Enuaraq household, first after a break of more than two weeks. Katara was supposed to have returned from Agna Qel'a earlier in the day, and Azula could not wait to hear from her friend and share the latest developments with her. She was relieved about not having to wait for long before she heard Katara's voice on the other end of the line. Oddly, Katara sounded a little subdued instead of happy about hearing her voice.

"Hey, it's me," Azula spoke up, following Katara's muted greeting. "Is everything alright? How were the qualifiers? If I even have to ask…"

"You really don't, Yue and I sailed straight through, no problems," Katara replied, sounding more cheerful. "What about you?"

"Same, 100% record," Azula chuckled. "Not terribly difficult when your main competitors are On Ji Takeda, Shoji Nomura and Kei Lo. The Fire Nation talent pool coming up behind me is just embarrassing."

"So everything is fine?" Katara asked.

"Well… kind of," Azula frowned. "I'm just a little frustrated about some things. You know how happy I was to get my car back?"

"I remember."

"Well, I wasn't allowed to take my own car to drive to the hotel hosting the tournament. I was really looking forward to showing off again," Azula pouted. "Instead, my father insisted that stupid old Zhao drive me to the hotel every day. And he made me do prep with Zhao like every day, too. Ugh, I hate that guy. Still so creepy," Azula ranted for a bit, then realizing that Katara had gone strangely quiet. "Are you still there?"

"Yeah… yeah, I'm here," Katara replied. She sounded upset about something. "And how's your father?"

"So far so good," Azula said. "He was delighted about my performance. I've been rewarded with a two week winter holiday vacation on Ember Island. Annoyingly, my father and Zhao will be coming along, which is… bah, hopefully I can simply ditch them most of the time."

"That does sound annoying," Katara agreed. "So your father hasn't been angry with you lately, everything is alright?"

"Well…" Azula began thoughtfully. It was weird that Katara was being so insistent with these questions. Azula had made it clear that she didn't want to discuss Ozai with her friend. Still, Azula hadn't heard from Katara in a long while, so she was happy to indulge the other girl more than she normally would. "Something has been bugging me lately," she finally admitted. "When it's not my father or Zhao looking after me, I often get the feeling that someone is watching me whenever I decide to go out on my own."

"What, you mean like your father has hired someone to spy on you?" Katara asked. She sounded disbelieving for some reason.

"Yeah, I think so," Azula said. "It's not that surprising. My father has his agents spying on a lot of people, such as his business rivals. And I think that he wants to make sure that I don't engage in any more reckless driving. Well, it wasn't really reckless, only by the standards of boring old people. And police. But I've been good about watching that annoying speed limit. I want to keep my car, thank you very much."

"Well, thank the spirits for that," Katara sounded relieved. It was almost as if she didn't believe Azula when she claimed that she hadn't been reckless. Azula couldn't understand why Katara wouldn't believe her about that. "By the way, did you hear how the Earth Kingdom qualifiers ended? I think Sokka took the Saturday paper with him when he went out for a drive, so I have no way of checking."

"Oh yes, Aang, Teo and that annoyingly cheerful Meng girl made it through," Azula replied. "Both Joo Dee and Kori lost out, can you imagine that? Their parents must be tired of bribing the organizing committees for wild cards every year," she added with a laugh. "In fact, I know for sure that both Long Feng and Mayor Morishita already called my father to put in a good word with the organizers in the Fire Fountain City."

"Right, isn't it wonderful being filthy rich," Katara remarked, sounding bitter and sarcastic. "I guess we'll see them both in the spring despite them not having earned their spots."

"Yes, I think that's very likely," Azula agreed.

There was a longer pause before Katara spoke up again. "Listen, Azula," she sounded really reluctant and hesitant. "I have to tell you something seriously unpleasant and I don't know where and how to begin."

Azula felt a cold chill starting to spread in the pit of her stomach. "You no longer want me to call you," she decided. "Fine, I'll just-"

"No! What? Why would you say something so awful?" Katara sounded horrified. "No, it's something else entirely. I happened to overhear something deeply upsetting while staying with Yue."

"Oh? What was it?" Azula instantly became incredibly curious.

"During my stay with Yue, her father received visitors from the Earth Kingdom. Lao Beifong and Long Feng," Katara began.

"Oh, now I'm really interested. Those two are good acquaintances of my father. Go on, please," Azula urged.

"They were speaking about the plans they have for their daughters once they come of age. It was all seriously sickening," Katara sounded really angry on the other end of the line. "Then someone, I think it was Long Feng, mentioned your father. And his plans for you."

"Y-yes?" Azula managed. She suddenly found herself shaking, cold fear gripping her. Ozai had always remained tightlipped about his exact expectations once she came of age. Had he already chosen a match for her? With the way he was safeguarding her from the boys of the same age as her, Azula was not certain just what Ozai intended for her, but every time she thought about, an ominous feeling came over her.

"Spirits, I hate myself for having to tell you something this awful," Katara said. She sounded like she was about to break down. "Ugh, now I'm not sure I can… sorry, I wish I hadn't heard what I did."

"You're killing me here, Katara," Azula somehow found the strength to speak. "Please, tell me the truth. I need to know."

"Azula, there's a reason why your father allows Zhao Sakamoto to hang out with you so much," Katara spoke quietly.

Azula froze. No, no, no… no! It couldn't be! He wouldn't! She was suddenly assaulted by a raging wave of nausea, triggering a powerful gag reflex, but she just about managed to avoid throwing up right where she sat. This was absolutely sick and revolting! And yet, it certainly explained so much. Her father knew that she couldn't stand Zhao. She had complained about him more than once, but Ozai had always merely smiled, brushed her concerns aside and told her to learn to get along with his trusted right hand man. Ozai had told her that Zhao was as good as one of the family. She suddenly wanted to throw up again. Yeah, part of the family, indeed. She hadn't realized just how Zhao planned to become a part of the family.

"Azula? Say something please?" Katara sounded pleading on the phone.

"I… yes, I'm here. It's a… lot to take in," she managed. Agni, if she had wished to break free from Ozai's grasp before, that feeling had intensified tenfold. This was the worst act of betrayal possible on the part of her father. And it enabled Azula to admit to herself that she utterly loathed her father, and she no longer felt guilty about feeling this way.

"I'm sorry, but as you said yourself, I think you needed to know what they're planning," Katara spoke soothingly.

"Yes… yes, thank you, Katara," Azula managed, thinking frantically. This was disgusting and revolting, but at least she now knew what to prepare for. It also told her what the next stage of her plan would have to be. "Because of you, I now know what I have to do. I have to get rid of Zhao."

"Get rid of him?" Katara sounded aghast. "What do you mean? Like, uh…"

"You've watched one too many episodes of Columbo lately, haven't you?" Azula chuckled despite the grim circumstances. "No, I don't plan to kill Zhao. I need to find a way to drive a wedge between him and my father. I have to think of a way to make Ozai angry with Zhao, so that my father kicks him out."

"Do you think that will work?" Katara asked.

"It has to work," Azula said with grim determination. "I'll have to make it really convincing for my father to turn on Zhao, but I'm sure I will think of something. I'm having several ideas as we speak."

"Well, that's good," Katara seemed slightly relieved, but still deeply uneasy. "But Zhao is only a part of the problem, isn't he? Even with Zhao out of the picture, your father will just find someone else, won't he? We really need to get you out of there, Azula. You could… I know it's not much, but you could always come and stay with me-"

"Come on, Katara. I appreciate the concern, but we both know that's not a realistic solution," Azula sighed. She was touched by how much Katara cared, but the other girl wasn't being logical right now. "I'm working on finding a way out, believe me. And sooner or later, I'll think of something. You don't need to panic on my behalf." Deep down, Azula was far less confident than her words implied, and she suspected that Katara probably sensed it, too. But she had to believe that there was a way, and it most likely lay in discovering something she could use as leverage against her father. She knew that Ozai was involved in many shady dealings. She had already done some research, trying to find something she could use, but thus far she hadn't had any luck. But there was still time, nine and a half months until her eighteenth birthday.

"How can I not panic with what your asshole parents are planning for both you and Yue?" Katara exclaimed. Yep, she was definitely panicking. "And I'm just supposed to sit here and do nothing? I can't accept that!"

"Katara, listen to me," Azula spoke, trying to project as much calm confidence as she could muster. It wasn't easy, but she somehow managed to sound convincing. "You've already helped a great deal by telling me all of this. It's going to help me so much going forward. So, stop feeling like you aren't helping, because you so are. And you will continue to help by talking to me, right?"

"Of course, I'll help. We can plan together," Katara sounded excited. Azula frowned. This wasn't the direction she wanted Katara to take it.

"No, I'm sorry, but I can't discuss my plans with you, Kat," Azula spoke softly. "The less you know the better. I am not making you into my willing accomplice."

"But-" Katara clearly wanted to protest, then giving up with a resigned sigh. "You can't imagine how hard it is, to know that something like this is going on and being reduced to the role of a passive observer. And then there was the other thing Long Feng said… I hope he was just joking because it was so disgusting and inappropriate to say. But it still makes me worry about you even more."

"What did Long Feng say?" Azula demanded to know.

"It was just a sick joke," Katara replied. "Please, don't make me repeat it."

"Katara. What did Long Feng say?" Azula insisted.

Katara let out another heavy sigh. "He said that-… ugh, no I can't say it!"


"Fine… fine, please, just don't hate me for what I'm about to say. Long Feng said that if your father thought that he could get away with it, he would marry you himself," Katara finished, her words leaving Azula frozen in shock.

Azula's only reaction afterwards was a nervous, hollow laughter, which clearly did not reassure Katara. "Azula? Has your father ever acted inappropriately in that way?" she asked.

"Agni, no! What the fuck, Katara?" having recovered from her shock, Azula found herself becoming angry. "I know that my father's treatment of me can be awful, but seriously, let's not absolutely demonize him here. You can't buy into Long Feng's sick and twisted imagination. He is probably projecting his lust for his own daughter onto my father. It's ridiculous to assume that there's any truth to what Long Feng said."

"If you're sure-"

"Yes, I'm sure," Azula snapped irately. She hadn't meant to become defensive of her father, not after everything he had done, but these accusations just seemed so inappropriate and baseless. At the same time, she didn't want to offend Katara. "Look, you've given me a lot to think about, Katara. I think I need some time to process it all now, okay? Call you tomorrow the same time, okay?"

"Wait, are you sure you're alright, Az-" Katara tried to stop her from terminating the call, but Azula had already put the handset back in its place. She shook her head, still feeling stunned by everything she had heard. Azula had overheard plenty of unflattering descriptions of her father and his way of conducting business, but this… Azula couldn't help but feel that Long Feng's inappropriate and slanderous implications went way beyond the pale.

She was willing to admit that her father was not a good person, as much as she believed in shallow definitions of good and bad. But Azula just couldn't quite believe that her father would be capable of something so monstrous than what Long Feng had implied behind Ozai's back. She already had plenty to fear from her father. She refused to accept that she also had to fear that.

Next chapter: Angsty winter holiday time, yay?! Yue comes to visit Sokka and Katara in Cape Kuruk, while Azula puts her plan to get rid of Zhao in action.

Chapter Text

The month and a half from the qualifying tournament in Agna Qel'a to the winter holidays proved to be a difficult time for Katara Enuaraq. Not necessarily because of something that had happened in her own life, no, it was mostly the angst and worry about her two best friends, Yue and Azula. She often got herself so worked up about her inability to help the two other girls more that she fell back into heavier usage of Librium just to be able to sleep. This made it a little harder for her to focus during her classes, and as a result her grades took a small dip, albeit not a very noticeable and worrying one. More concerning was the recent visit with her doctor who had warned her about the increased reliance on her meds and threatened to withhold her prescription if she didn't get her habit under control. That, however, proved easier said than done.

Their phone conversations with Yue and Azula helped, although they were not without their own frustrations. Katara was frustrated about Yue leaning towards going along with whatever horrible plans her father had in store for her, just as she was frustrated about Azula's vague assurances that she was taking care of her own issues, thank you very much, and that Katara didn't need to know any more than that.

Yue's announcement that her father had allowed her to spend a whole week of the winter holidays visiting with Katara and Sokka in Cape Kuruk had come as a pleasant surprise. It seemed very odd for her father to suddenly have a change of heart and allow Yue to hang out with the Enuaraq siblings, but Katara was not going to complain about that. So, Yue had arrived in Cape Kuruk and was currently staying at the Enuaraq household, sharing a room with Katara, as Gran-Gran had flatly rejected Sokka's optimistic suggestion for Yue to share his room. Katara's bed was not big enough for two, so an inflatable air mattress had been set up as a wildly inappropriate sleeping berth for the daughter of a millionaire. Yue hadn't made a peep by complaining, but after a couple of days on the air mattress, Katara had noticed that Yue was clearly struggling with back pains. Since then, they had agreed to alternate nights on the mattress, both of them happy with the compromise.

Gran-Gran had immediately warmed to Yue, not that Katara was surprised by that. Yue was just so damnably charismatic, soft spoken and well behaved. Most people who spoke to her were almost instantly charmed by her magnetic personality. Katara's father had also taken a liking to her, although Yue and Hakoda sadly didn't get the chance to interact for too long. It was on the second day of the winter holidays when Hakoda had received a phone call, informing him about an accident at the oil rig. Apparently, something called the 'primary pressure control system' had malfunctioned, but the secondary system had prevented a disaster from occurring. Still, this meant that as one of the shift foremen, Hakoda had to immediately make his way back to the oil rig to begin the review of all the safety procedures, a lengthy task that would take more than a week to complete. Katara was upset and saddened that her father once again could not be with the family during the holidays, but at least Yue's presence made up for it.

And while the social life in Cape Kuruk was almost nonexistent when compared to Agna Qel'a, it didn't mean that there was nothing for them to do. The weather remained perfect throughout the whole week of Yue's stay, low twenties keeping the gorgeous forest trails around the village in pristine condition. Every day they did at least ten miles of cross-country skiing through the forests, up to the point of complete exhaustion as they burned an insane amount of calories, only to then restore them in one of the several fast food joints in the tiny village. The ice hockey rink had once again been built behind the house, this time by Sokka alone. At the end of the long winter evenings, after the hockey activities had ceased, Katara and Yue put on their skates and went to the rink to have some fun of their own, simply making circles and doing some mock figure skating tricks, not that they were very good at it. It was all just for the fun and giggles, not to mention that the long shadows cast by the far-off street lights and houses made for a particularly romantic setting.

All in all, it had been one of the best winter holidays in Katara's life. However, all good things eventually came to an end, and so did Yue's visit. She would be taking the bus back to Agna Qel'a on Sunday morning, which meant that they still had one last Saturday evening left to them. After an amazing morning session spent skiing along the forest trails, by the time they had made it back to the village it was already late in the afternoon, and so they had decided to stop for a meal at the local Wang Fire's Spicy Chicken joint. Having finished their spicy chicken sandwiches and chocolate smoothies, Sokka realized that he was still hungry, and so he had ordered a large bucket of chicken nuggets which Yue and Katara were now forced to watch him devour, wincing as they did so. The nuggets were in a bucket with a picture of a ridiculous looking man on the side of it, presumably Wang Fire himself. With his clearly fake looking beard and moustache, Wang Fire looked like he most certainly was not based on the appearance of any real person.

"Hey! Hey, girls! Watch this!" Sokka called out, taking a nugget and tossing it up in the air, then catching it right in his mouth. "You know what they call it? It's poultry in motion."

Yue burst into giggles, while Katara blinked, shaking her head. "Don't you mean poetry in motion?" she asked.

Sokka let out a groan, glaring at his sister. "Seriously, Katara?" he asked in disbelief. "I can't believe that you would ruin such a perfect joke! Good grief, just learn what a pun is, already."

"Oh," Katara blushed, having finally realized the joke behind the pun. "You're right, that was pretty funny, Sokka," she smiled.

"Too late, you've already ruined the moment," Sokka sighed, stuffing more and more nuggets down his gullet. "Tell my sister why she's the worst," he looked at Yue, speaking around the chunks of tender chicken in his mouth.

"She's the opposite of the worst," Yue instead smiled warmly at Katara. "I think it's very endearing that she doesn't get your puns. It's just so precious and adorable." There was something in Yue's smile that made Katara feel particularly warm. And it reminded her how Yue hadn't particularly sought privacy with Sokka during the holiday. That was definitely a little unexpected. Katara had to wonder what it was all about.

"Ugh, yet another girl conspiracy," Sokka grunted before stuffing the last of the chicken nuggets behind his cheeks and starting to chew. Once he was finally done, he spoke up again. "So, the final evening of your visit, Yue," he smiled at his girlfriend. "Any suggestions on what we should do?"

"I'm honestly a little tired after so much skiing," Yue let out a delicate yawn. "I don't think I want to go out and do something exhausting tonight. A quiet evening with my favorite Enuaraq siblings would be perfect."

"Sounds good, but the evening doesn't have to be quiet," Sokka winked at her. "Remember, Gran-Gran is going out tonight for that big Yule gathering in the village. She and all the other old people are going to spend the whole evening complaining about young people not respecting the traditions of old, like lighting bonfires and singing to ward off evil spirits and other such nonsense. So, I was thinking… we could reach into my stash of booze and have a little private party. Let's blast the latest Buggles album to the max and get sloshed on rum, what do you say?"

"You have rum?" Katara immediately perked up. "Well, that settles it. Once we're back at home, I'm making eggnog. Very special eggnog with lots and lots of extra run," she giggled, playfully elbowing Yue. "And you're going to help me."

"Sure, even though I'm useless in the kitchen," Yue grinned at her. "But anyway, special eggnog and The Buggles? Sounds like an awesome party to me!"

Ever since Katara had told Azula the plans Ozai had in store for her, Azula's anxiety had shot through the roof. Her stress levels throughout the past six weeks had been unmanageable. Azula had always suffered from sleep deprivation and these problems only intensified with stress. Still, despite these added difficulties in her life, Azula felt extremely grateful to Katara for revealing just what she was up against. For so long, the day of coming of age had been this hugely anticipated event that seemed like it should be a good thing, but which still felt a little scary. And now Azula had learned that she had a very good reason to be afraid of what awaited her, and that she needed to do everything she could to extricate herself from this situation.

Azula knew that her father had plenty of skeletons in his closet. Some of the men he employed for his protection were little more than thugs and many had criminal pasts. They were all too happy to jump at Ozai's request to beat the living daylights out of Jet, a harmless teenager. Over the years, they had probably made quite a few people… disappear on her father's orders. But obviously, if there were any witnesses to these crimes, it was futile to hope that these people would actually testify in the courtroom about what they had seen. And while Azula had gone through some of the documents in her father's office at the Caldera City mansion, she hadn't come across anything as neatly incriminating as a hit list. No, her father was far too intelligent to leave such evidence simply lying around.

That was really the problem with finding some leverage she could use against her father. While he was surely involved in many shady business dealings over the years, the documents that Azula found lying about in his office did not seem to show anything illegal, and she had gone through every folder and every desk drawer. Besides, if there was some illegal stuff like insider trading or tax evasion, how would she even be able to identify it? She was far more intelligent than the average seventeen year old, but she was not a lawyer, a financial expert or an accountant. All of these legal documents in her father's possession seemed to be in order. He was employing an army of lawyers for a reason.

What else did she have on her father? What about the very fact that he was abusing her? Well, there was little she could do with that. Threatening Ozai about going to the Fire Nation police was such a terrible idea that it would probably put her father in stitches from laughing too hard. Threatening to leak it to the press? That probably wouldn't work, either. It would be just her word against Ozai's and his army of lawyers, because nobody else would back her on this. What newspaper would dare to touch this hand grenade with its safety pin removed? Ozai's lawyers would have a field day putting that respective newspaper out of business. Oh, and the reporter responsible for the article would probably end up taking a walk wearing cement shoes at the bottom of the First Lord's Harbor. Nope, this was obviously an idea too terrible for Azula to even contemplate.

So, Azula instead focused on something that was more realistically attainable, such as driving a wedge between her father and Zhao, hopefully resulting in Ozai severing all ties with his creepy as fuck right hand man. To that extent, Azula had come up with a deeply underhanded and slightly revolting scheme, which she still considered appropriate given the urgency of the situation. Ozai was obviously insanely protective of her, and it was clear that he would not stand for Zhao acting in any way that was inappropriate towards her before she had come of age and the arranged marriage had taken place. Azula thought that she could exploit her father's protectiveness of her against Zhao. All she needed to do was to convince her father that Zhao was indeed guilty of acting inappropriately towards her. The situation definitely called for some creative entrapment.

Azula knew that the key for her plan to work was solid preparation. It had to be almost like a perfect game of Pai Sho. Without a perfect setup, there could be no perfect execution. She couldn't just run up to her father and blurt out some lie about Zhao having been creepy or having touched her inappropriately. Ozai might not necessarily believe her, so this idea of Zhao being creepy had to be slowly implanted in her father's head. For more than a week before their departure to Ember Island for the winter holidays, Azula had used every occasion possible to mention to her father how Zhao had been particularly nice and how he had been treating her so well. Ozai knew that Azula didn't exactly like Zhao, so to suddenly have his daughter so complimentary towards his right hand man? Well, it clearly raised a lot of questions. What exactly was Zhao doing to make Azula suddenly like him so much? Azula could see that her trickery was slowly starting to make Ozai more and more suspicious.

Of course, for this plan to succeed, Azula had to work on Zhao as well, even if it made her sick to the stomach, being nice to the man. A shy smile here, a giggle and a coy wink there… it wasn't the way Azula normally acted, but she knew how to play the game. She had initially worried that Zhao would become suspicious when her attitude towards him changed from lukewarm to approachable. Her worries were unjustified. Zhao was clever and cautious, but he was also only a male, and he found the attention of a highly attractive young teenage girl very flattering to his ego. And Azula knew that he had fancied her for so many years despite how sick and inappropriate it had been to lust after someone as young as she had been.

After another week of playing mind games on Ember Island, Azula finally felt that her plan was ready to be put into motion. Ozai was by now deeply suspicious that Zhao was up to something with his daughter. Zhao was by now strongly convinced that Azula was into him. The stage was set. All Azula needed now was an opportunity.

Said opportunity arrived on an evening at the start of their second week of stay at the Ember Island cottage. Azula had just got back from the beach where she had enjoyed several hours of relaxing sunbathing, wearing an enticing red two piece bikini, quite revealing for the standards of the day. Her father was downstairs, speaking on the phone, while Zhao was relaxing in the upstairs lounge, nursing a drink and looking a little buzzed. Azula waited at the top of the stairs for several minutes until she was sure that her father was about to end his phone conversation. Once she was certain that Ozai was about to hang up the handset, Azula stepped into the lounge and walked over to where Zhao sat, smiling invitingly at him.

"Hey," she spoke in a warm, alluring voice. "I don't suppose you've seen my book lying around?"

"Azula," Zhao smiled at her, his eyes lingering on her scantily clad body before he reluctantly forced himself to look around the room. "Can't say that I have? What book was it?"

"Oh, you know… some racy novel about a young girl who gets seduced by-… uh, but I probably shouldn't be reading such things," she faked catching herself and lowering her eyes demurely.

"Don't worry about it," Zhao winked at her. "Your secret is safe with me, little darling. I haven't seen the book, though."

"Ah, I think I put it back on the shelf," Azula smiled, walking up to the nearby bookshelf. She utterly hated what she was about to do, leaning forward to browse the shelf and sticking her ass right up in the air for Zhao to ogle at, hoping that he would not be able to resist the bait she had set out for him… and Zhao fell for it, hook, line and sinker.

Azula could not have asked for the plan to work out any better than it did. Zhao reached out to grab her backside just as Ozai strode into the room. Azula's fake cry of surprise coincided with Ozai's roar of outrage, as Zhao immediately withdrew his hand with a horrified look on his face. Now it was time for Azula to cap her performance off with one final act, as she forced herself to tear up, running up to Ozai. "Father, I'm so sorry-"

"You have nothing to apologize for, Azula, I saw the whole thing," her father replied stiffly as he gently pushed her aside. "Go to your room and don't come out until I tell you so. Uncle Zhao and I are going to have… words."

Azula quickly ran out of the lounge, but obviously, she didn't return to her room. She was not going to miss enjoying the fruits of her labor as she watched Zhao shakily rise from his seat. "This isn't what it looks like, I swear," he tried, not sounding particularly convincing as Ozai bore down on him.

"You snake! Is this how you reward my trust? You couldn't even wait for a fucking year before I was prepared to let you have her?" Ozai yelled at Zhao, grabbing his right hand man by the collar of his white shirt and then throwing him to the ground like a sack of cabbages. "How dare you treat my daughter this way?" Ozai roared, grabbing a pool cue from the nearby table.

"Please, Ozai, I beg you, I made a poor decision, but this was the only time it has happened," Zhao begged, remaining on the floor and not even trying to rise, groveling like a misbehaving dog in front of his master.

"I don't believe you, not with how you've been sniffing around Azula as of late," Ozai exclaimed. "You're going to pay for this, Zhao," he said, starting to mercilessly beat Zhao with the pool cue. Azula watched the carnage in rapt fascination, feeling both horrified and thrilled at the same time from seeing how Zhao's white shirt was starting to turn red in more and more spots. For a time, Azula seriously thought that her father was going to kill Zhao, but then the cue snapped in Ozai's hands and he threw the broken pieces away, ceasing the violence. Azula took it as a sign to get to safety, slowly sneaking back towards her room.

"You have one minute to get out of here, Zhao. If you're still here a minute later, I swear, I'm going to kill you with my own bare hands," Ozai threatened. Azula quickly slipped inside her room and closed the doors, watching through the keyhole as the badly beaten Zhao dragged himself past the doors, sliding down the stairs and then somehow making it all the way out onto the porch. Azula could hear her father shouting orders at some of his men downstairs, and shortly afterwards she watched the thugs dragging a semi-conscious Zhao away and unceremoniously throwing him off the property, leaving him lying in a pool of his own blood on the other side of the gate.

Azula knew that she could not afford to celebrate prematurely, and she was proven right when her father entered her room a few moments later, still looking angry, smelling of whiskey he had just downed. Azula made sure to remain visibly upset and tearful, just so that Ozai would not suspect any foul play. "I didn't mean for this to happen, father, I'm really sorry if this is somehow my fault-" she began, but Ozai cut her off impatiently.

"I don't want to hear you apologizing for this ever again, Azula. I told you, it wasn't your fault," Ozai told her. His expression softened slightly as he let out a sigh. "Come here," he beckoned her over and Azula obeyed, walking up to her father and allowing him to embrace her. "It seems that I am not as good a judge of character as I thought myself to be. I nearly made a terrible mistake with Zhao. I was a fool to think that anyone else would be good enough for my daughter."

Wait… what? Anyone else? Anyone else than what? Azula went stiff and rigid in her father's arms, subtly trying to extricate herself. Her father would have none of it, however, continuing to hold her in what he probably thought was a comforting gesture, but instead it was quickly becoming highly uncomfortable for Azula.

It also made her suspect that by successfully dodging the Zhao shaped bullet, she may have left herself exposed to something infinitely more wrong and disturbing, and she was not immediately sure of how to protect herself from that.

Katara woke up shortly after midnight, having finally managed to fall asleep without the aid of her Librium pills. She immediately realized that the sound which had awakened her had been the coughing of the family's old Powell truck as it made its way out onto the street and away. And that in itself was really strange because Sokka had nowhere to go at this hour, nor was he supposed to be driving, having enjoyed quite a lot of the unusually potent eggnog. Was he taking Yue somewhere at this hour? Were they going to rent a room and make out in the local hostel?

That explanation was discarded instantly when Katara saw Yue enter her room moments later. The street lights outside cast a soothing, orange glow, bright enough for Katara to realize that the shine on Yue's cheeks was due to a flood of tears. Her best friend was trying not to sniffle, but she was completely unsuccessful at it as she perched down on the air mattress, more and more tears escaping her eyes as she buried her head in her hands.

"Yue, what's wrong?" Katara decided not to pretend that she was asleep. She wouldn't be able to sleep anyway, now that she knew that her friend was in such distress.

"I thought you were sleeping," Yue sniffled, looking embarrassed as she tried to get her emotions back under control.

"You didn't answer my question," Katara insisted.

"I broke up with Sokka," Yue sobbed out the words, starting to cry again.

"Oh," was all that Katara could manage. So that's why Sokka had taken off. Spirits, she prayed that her brother was going to be alright. It was a seriously bad idea for him to be driving around in such a state. Still, she couldn't do anything for Sokka right now, but at least she could be there for Yue. "Come here," she said, getting up from the bed and patting the mattress, urging Yue to come and sit with her. "Talk to me, Yue."

Yue appeared reluctant even if she made no protest, accepting the offer with a sigh as she joined Katara on the bed. Katara immediately wrapped her arms around the other girl's shoulders, pulling her in for a hug and Yue gratefully leaned into her. "I know it was the right thing to do," Yue sniffled. "But it still hurts so much…"

"Why did you decide to do it right now?" Katara asked softly.

"Didn't you find it weird that my father would suddenly cave in and allow me to come and visit, after forbidding me to do so for years?" Yue asked in return.

"I thought it was a little strange, yes," Katara replied.

"My father only allowed me to visit on the condition that I broke things off with Sokka," Yue sighed. "Since I knew that it was the right thing to do anyway, I agreed on this condition, but still… I just couldn't find the strength to actually do it, not until this very last moment."

"Spirits, I'm so sorry, Yue," Katara held her even tighter. "Here's something that won't surprise you. I don't think I like your father very much."

"No, I didn't think you would. Truth be told, I struggle to love him the way a child should love their parent," Yue admitted. "But we don't get to choose our parents, do we?"

"I'm afraid not," Katara replied. "But at least we can choose our friends."

"Yes, and befriending you was the best choice I've ever made. I don't know what I would do without you, Kat," Yue looked up at her gratefully. The eye contact between them persisted, and then Yue leaned up towards her and kissed Katara on the lips.

"What… what are you doing?" Katara managed, taken aback by Yue's actions.

"Trying to make myself feel a little better, I guess," Yue whispered. She leaned in and kissed Katara again, pulling away when Katara's grip around her shoulders loosened. "I thought you would want-"

"This isn't about what I want, Yue," Katara said, slightly sharper than she had intended. "This is about right and wrong, and this… this doesn't feel right at all. I mean, come on, you just broke up with my brother half an hour ago, and now you're kissing me? That doesn't feel respectful."

Yue's face contorted with pain as she quickly pulled away. "I don't know what I'm doing anymore," she sobbed, burying her face in her hands and starting to cry again. "I'm sorry," she hiccupped, sounding frantic. "I keep… I keep messing everything up…"

"It's alright, Yue," Katara spoke soothingly, feeling guilty for pushing her friend away. "I still want to be there for you. But please, don't try to jump into something else right away just because you're hurting right now."

Yue's sobbing slowly came to an end and she dabbed at the corners of her eyes, further ruining her makeup. "You're right, I could never forgive myself if I hurt you too, Kat," she sighed. "Thank you for stopping me from doing something seriously stupid."

"That's what best friends are for," Katara smiled at her. "Listen, I would feel really bad if you had to sleep on that air mattress tonight. Why don't you get ready for bed and join me? I want to hold you, but you have to promise not to try and kiss me again, alright?"

"Alright, Kat," Yue flashed her a relieved smile, getting up from the bed and quickly removing her ruined makeup, then undressing and slipping into her nightgown before joining Katara under the duvet. Katara immediately reached out and pulled Yue close, wrapping her arms around the other girl's midriff and resting her chin in the crook of Yue's shoulder. As comfortable as they were, neither of the girls were able to fall asleep for the next hour, and only when they heard the sounds of Sokka's truck safely pulling back into the driveway, did they finally allow themselves to relax enough to fall asleep, feeling safe in their shared embrace.

Next chapter: It's the last chance for Azula, Katara or Yue to win the U18 finals, but Toph will not relinquish her title without a fight. Which one of them will come through, or will we see a surprise winner emerge?

Chapter Text

Azula was struggling to find a good way to describe what the months following that winter holiday on Ember Island had been like for her. Creepy and uncomfortable seemed liked the closest descriptors, but somehow, they still didn't feel adequate. For years, fear of her father and his wrath had been a constant in Azula's life. And yet, over these past few months, Ozai's attitude towards her had shifted completely. Azula appreciated that she no longer had to fear the beatings, and the constant berating had also become a thing of the past. Instead, her father was now treating her more akin to an actual princess, or… well, Azula didn't know quite what to compare it to, but if she had known, Azula was certain that she wouldn't like it.

The doting was definitely reaching some rather uncomfortable levels. She could appreciate the gifts and the extra cash, especially when Ozai was traveling and she didn't have to show her affectionate gratitude to her father in person. Ozai would also arrange for flowers to be delivered to her, intricate bouquets costing hundreds upon hundreds of yuan. It made Azula feel really weird. Was it normal for a father to give his daughter flowers? Maybe it was normal for her birthday or some important event, sure, but every other day for no reason? That just didn't seem right. Was Ozai trying to tell her something? Did it have something to do with that comment Long Feng had made and Katara had warned her about? Azula was still trying to convince herself that it couldn't be true. Allowing herself to even contemplate this possibility made her absolutely sick to her stomach.

But then, something else had been occurring recently, something that was making Azula even more anxious when it came to her relationship with Ozai. Azula was grateful for being such a light sleeper, because on at least three separate occasions, she had been awakened by the creaking sound of her bedroom doors opening. Azula had successfully pretended to be asleep, while her father had simply stood there on the doorstep of her bedroom, watching her sleep. All that time, Azula had been praying for him not to take that step across the threshold, to remain where he stood, hoping that Ozai would eventually just go away. He had done so on all the previous occasions, but it had left Azula panicking about what she would do if her father had actually approached her. That horrifying possibility made her consider obtaining some means to defend herself with, although the idea of pulling a weapon on her own father still felt deeply wrong to her.

At least there were some slight upsides to the changes in Ozai's attitude towards her. For one, he seemed unwilling to deny most of her requests, as long as they remained within reason. Azula had asked to be given full autonomy over the course of the U18 finals in the Fire Fountain City, and Ozai had agreed in exchange for a promise that she would win the title. Azula had then asked for her car to be ferried over to Shuhon Island so that she could drive around the island and show off to her friends, and Ozai had once again agreed. Azula had cleverly asked for permission to hang out with Yue Taqqiq and Toph Beifong, as well as their friends. She had phrased her question this way because the Taqqiqs and the Beifongs were more acceptable to Ozai than Katara's family, or Agni forbid, Aang's impoverished Air Nation foster family. Again, Ozai had agreed, and this way Azula had secured what she had truly desired, the permission to hang out with Katara as much as they both wanted. She would still have to be careful while out in the public, Azula knew that much. Her father had eyes everywhere. Just because he had agreed to grant her freedom for these two and a half weeks, it didn't mean that he hadn't asked for some of his spies to keep an eye on her.

Still, despite all of these worrying developments in her life, Azula was genuinely happy about the start of another hugely important tournament with the potential to impact the rest of her career. Two and a half weeks away from her father on an amazing Fire Nation resort island, and she got to hang out with Katara and her friends while doing what they all loved the most, namely enjoying some competitive Pai Sho. Yes, Azula was definitely in a very positive frame of mind at the start of this tournament, unlike the year before in Ba Sing Se.

Their phone conversations with Katara had remained a constant part of her life over the past months, and they had kept Azula sane and grounded, while their long distance Pai Sho sparring had sharpened the skills of them both. Katara had been delighted to hear about Azula's successful plot to get rid of Zhao, but she had expressed concern whether this had actually changed anything regarding Ozai's plans to marry Azula off once she came of age. Azula had remained evasive on the topic, continuing to insist that she was handling things with her father (she didn't admit being woefully short in the idea department there, because… why worry Katara?), and that she couldn't discuss Ozai with Katara due to the concerns for her friend's safety, which wasn't even a lie. Still, things with Katara seemed great overall, which was why Azula was currently sitting in her red Spider and heading for the Shuhon International Airport to pick up her Water Tribe friends.

Once at the airport, Azula parked her car and proceed straight for the half of arrivals. The plane from Agna Qel'a had just landed and it would take some time for Yue and Katara to negotiate the passport control and retrieve their luggage, so Azula bought herself an iced lemon tea and a newspaper, sitting down to read as she waited. There was an article about the upcoming U18 finals, discussing all the main favorites and their chances. Azula was pleased to read that nearly all the experts agreed that she was the main favorite, all except one who had reminded everyone how Azula hadn't won anything for three years straight and had basically called her a choker when it came to the big occasion. Azula rolled her eyes at that, refusing to get angry about someone's silly and incorrect opinion. She'd just correct them by letting her results speak for themselves.

Eventually, people began to emerge in the arrival's hall and Azula rose from her seat, starting to look around to make sure she didn't miss Katara and Yue. It didn't take long for Azula to spot them, which honestly was not hard with Yue's striking white hair. The Water Tribe girls were wearing matching short blue fit and flare dresses, their looks making something go all a flutter at the pit of Azula's stomach, but she firmly decided to ignore these sensations. It seemed that Yue had dragged Katara out on a shopping trip before their departure from Agna Qel'a. Their dresses looked fairly expensive and Azula didn't think that Katara would have been able to afford something like that. Considering how the dress made Katara look, she had made good use of Yue's generosity as far as Azula was concerned.

Katara and Yue soon spotted her as well. Katara's immediate reaction was to drop her luggage and rush forward to envelop Azula in a crushing embrace. With the arrival's hall being quite crowded by now, Azula at first felt deeply conscious about such a show of affection, but she then decided not to give a crap about what the others thought. Hugging Katara simply felt too good. Besides, embracing a friend was perfectly normal, as was the unusually rapid beating of her heart when Katara just wouldn't let go of her. Yes, everything is completely normal here, I'm just happy to see a friend.

By the time Katara finally released her, Yue had also joined them, together with Katara's abandoned and forgotten luggage. Azula was just about to offer Yue a handshake, when the other Water Tribe girl surprised Azula by also pulling her into a hug, one that wasn't quite as long and intense as Katara's embrace.

"I can't believe we're all finally back together!" Katara exclaimed, speaking for them all, the three girls sporting broad and excited smiles. Azula still found it a little weird, getting carried away by excitement like that, but she had discovered some time ago that Katara simply had that sort of effect on her. Normally, she would be fighting this rush of emotions tooth and nail, but with Katara here, Azula could do only one thing and that was to go with the flow.

"Well, we're not quite back together yet," Yue pointed out. "The plane from Gaoling won't arrive for another three hours." The plane from Gaoling was bringing Toph and Aang, the Air Nation boy having to navigate some impressive flight connections to make it to the Fire Nation. He had also gone out of his way to pick his flights so that he would spend the final leg of his journey on the same plane with Toph.

"True enough," Katara agreed. "And I suppose we won't quite be back together this year, not the same as before." She turned towards Azula. "I told you before that Sokka wouldn't be coming this year, but turns out that he will be traveling, just not with us. He's coming to hang out with that girl, Suki, who writes for The Harmony Ring."

"Right," Azula nodded. Katara had mentioned something about Yue breaking up with her brother a few months ago. She wasn't sure why Yue still looked a little guilty at the mention of it. Azula liked Sokka well enough, but he was clearly out of Yue's league and she clearly could do better. Still, Azula didn't particularly care about these relationship pitfalls of the others. There were other things on her mind right now. "How about we get out of this crowded airport and be on our way?" she asked.

"That sounds like an excellent idea," Yue agreed and the three of them left the hall of arrivals and made their way to the car park to track down Azula's Spider. "Now that is a classy car, not that I expected anything else," Yue grinned at the sight of the red Alfa Romeo. "And I can't help but to notice that it's a two-seater."

Azula glanced at both Yue and Katara. "I'm sure you two can manage a little bit of squeezing," she shrugged, opening the baggage compartment at the back of the car and helping the two other girls stuff their suitcases safely inside. With all three of them putting some weight on the lid of the baggage compartment, they eventually even managed to close it.

It took Yue and Katara some effort to squeeze into the sole passenger seat and somehow strap the safety belt across the two of them. "This reminds me so much of the squeezing in with Sokka in our old family truck when we were younger," Katara sighed. "This is a lot more tolerable, at least," she added with a small smile directed at Yue.

"Just don't go too fast, Azula," Yue warned as Azula smoothly pulled out of the airport's car park. "This isn't the safest way to travel, I'm sure."

"I wasn't intending to show off or anything," Azula replied, a little huffily. She had totally intended to show off. But perhaps Yue's warning had some merit. She didn't know the roads of Shuhon Island all the well, and the terrain here was very challenging, constant ups and downs accompanied by tricky and mostly blind turns. Getting into an accident would probably enrage Ozai despite how he had acted as of late and besides, she didn't want to endanger these particular passengers. Yes, perhaps it was smarter to take things easy on the drive back to the hotel.

"You've seen the hotel already, right?" Katara asked. "How nice is it?"

"Well, I wouldn't know about your rooms," Azula shrugged. She really had to focus very hard on the road ahead. The rush of emotions from being reunited with her friends was making her feel as if a little buzzed. "But the hotel is at an amazing location and has its own private beach access. And it has the best penthouse suite I've ever had the pleasure staying at."

"Wow, that does sound amazing," Katara's eyes widened with excitement. "I'm sure our rooms will be perfectly lovely as well."

"I think so, too," Yue nodded. "We'll have to find a place where we can all hang out together, though. I would say the beach, but it'll probably be too crowded and distracting for Pai Sho analysis. And I don't think that the Jasmine Dragon has expanded all the way to the Fire Nation."

"Oh no, Iroh would not dare to try that," Azula shook her head. "But we don't need some special place to hang out together. We can use my suite for that."

"You'd let us do that, Azula?" Katara beamed at her broadly. "Aww, you're literally the best! That would be amazing, as long as we don't have to fear your father storming in on us."

"No, he's promised to stay away and he has also given me permission to hang out with all of you," Azula explained, then reaching out to shift the gears, but almost grabbing Katara's thigh instead of the gear stick. She suddenly had this odd feeling in her chest, almost like regret about having failed to touch Katara's soft, chocolate hued skin.

"That's great news, Azula," Yue echoed the other Water Tribe girl's sentiments. "You said previously that it's the best penthouse suite you've ever stayed at. What makes it so good?"

"Ah, I'm glad you asked," Azula smiled as they finally came up to the Fire Fountain City itself. It wasn't a huge metropolis like Caldera City, but it was a huge tourist magnet and it was the spring break, so the streets were quite crowded. Even if the hotel was very close, Azula had to drive very slowly and carefully. "The best part of the suite is the roof access. Imagine the perfect sunbathing location with no peasants bothering you. Oh, and did I mention the swimming pool and the hot tub? I hope you two packed your swimsuits."

"We sure did," Katara replied, exchanging glances with Yue and then bursting into giggles. Azula didn't quite understand what that was all about. It seemed like some private in-joke, and it left her mildly frustrated. "You'll see why we're laughing a little later," Katara smiled at her, as if sensing Azula's frustration. The mild irritation faded almost immediately.

"Alright," Azula smiled briefly at Katara, then returning her attention right back to the road. It didn't take long for them to arrive at the hotel and Azula left her red Spider at the hotel car park. Yue and Katara extracted their luggage from the car's baggage compartment and then they were on their way towards the hotel entrance.

"Oh right, you still have to deal with all that annoying stuff at the reception desk," Azula sighed. "And you probably want to settle into your rooms, too. Why don't you just come up to the penthouse once you're ready?"

"Sounds good," Yue nodded. "Do you want us in our bathing suits?"

Azula blushed lightly from the way Yue had phrased that question. "Uh… yeah, that sounds like a good idea," she replied. "By the way, don't bother bringing sunscreen. I have enough to fill the hot tub with it."

Katara giggled at that comment. "Say, should we leave a note with the receptionist to let Aang and Toph know that we're hanging out with you?" she asked Azula. "That way they will know to join us once they arrive."

"Sure," Azula nodded gladly. "They're welcome to join us anytime." She smiled at the two Water Tribe girls, proceeding towards the elevator and leaving her two friends to settle formalities with the receptionist. "I'll see you two in a bit," she added, disappearing inside the elevator.

Katara was absolutely thrilled about the opportunity to once again hang out with her best friends. Having parted with Yue as they went to settle into their respective hotel rooms, the smile still hadn't left her face good ten minutes later. She had made a cursory exploration of her room and found it to be amazing. She had then diligently unpacked her suitcase, and now she was getting ready to head up to Azula's penthouse suite.

As she was making her preparations, Katara could not help but think back on the events of the past few months in her life, and the lives of her best friends. Where Katara herself was concerned, not much had changed. She had steadied her grades at school that had slipped slightly during the fall, and she was once again on the path of becoming valedictorian. Her Pai Sho had never felt stronger, due to her sparring with both Azula and Yue. In short, she didn't have much to complain about how her own life was unfolding.

When it came to her two best friends, things weren't quite as happy and clear cut. She was still exceptionally close with Yue. Heck, she loved Yue, and honestly, how could she stop now that she knew that Yue had feelings for her as well? But still, the events of the winter holiday had left a mark on their relationship. Katara had not been at all happy with Yue for kissing her in the wake of breaking up with Sokka. What had Yue been thinking? Sure, Katara could understand Yue's explanation that she had been upset and confused, but still… that had been such a terrible idea, even under duress. Over the coming weeks and months, Katara had eventually forgiven Yue for that thoughtless misstep, and the fact that Sokka hadn't remained down for long had helped. In fact, just a month after his breakup with Yue, Sokka had reached out to Suki and they had agreed to give proper dating a try.

Katara still wasn't sure where this left her and Yue. All Katara knew was that she didn't want to be Yue's rebound girl or partner for casual sex. If Yue really cared for her the way Katara cared for Yue, then the only way forward for them was for Yue to walk away from her father. Not that Katara felt that she had any right to demand that Yue gave up everything for her. Yue had to make that decision all by herself, but ever since the winter holidays, the other girl had avoided talking about her feelings during their frequent phone conversations. Katara hoped that they could have an honest and open discussion about all these things at some point during the tournament, even if it carried the potential risk of affecting their play. Still, the air had to be cleared, Katara was certain of it.

But if Katara felt that she had no right to encourage Yue to walk away from the riches of the Taqqiq family, Katara had no such objections about trying to convince Azula to split with her father. The reason for it was simple. Unlike Arnook Taqqiq, Ozai Nakamura was a monster. No wealth in the world could be worth enduring the physical and mental abuse he was putting Azula through. Katara was earnestly concerned of what would eventually become of Azula if she didn't walk away from Ozai's poisonous influence. Frustratingly, getting Azula to talk about these things was harder than squeezing blood from a stone. Azula simply kept insisting that she had the situation under control and that she couldn't share the details with Katara for her own safety. That just left Katara anxious and annoyed. How would Ozai Nakamura even know that Azula had told her something? Again, she was determined to use their time together during the tournament to push Azula towards leaving her father. She wasn't going to sit idly when she could use all this time to help her reluctant friend.

Having finished all the unpacking and settling in, Katara began to prepare for the visit to Azula's penthouse suite, which potentially included swimming and sunbathing. She grabbed her white bikini and stepped into the bathroom, quickly stripping naked and putting on her new swimsuit. It probably wasn't recommended to walk around the hotel in a state of near undress, so Katara quickly found a bathrobe to slip into. She then finished her preparations by removing her makeup and letting her hair all the way down. Satisfied with her appearance, she left the room at the same time as Yue emerged from her room, wearing an identical white bathrobe and grinning mischievously at her.

"Why are you grinning like that?" Katara smiled at her friend.

"I just had an idea about startling Azula a little bit," Yue couldn't stop smiling. "Since she's into girls-"

"She keeps denying that," Katara sighed.

"Yeah, totally unconvincingly, if you ask me," Yue snorted. "Anyway, I thought that once we get up to her suite, we should shed our bathrobes at the exact same moment and just observe her reaction. I think it's going to be hilarious."

Katara couldn't help but feel amused by the suggestion. "Oh, sign me up for that," she nodded. "Flustered Azula is the best Azula, if you ask me. She's so funny when she's embarrassed!"

"I thought you would see it my way," Yue nodded as the two of them entered the elevator and Yue hit the button to take them up to the penthouse. Katara rang the bell and not long after, Azula let them into the spacious apartment. "Whoa, this is really something!" Yue exclaimed, impressed with the splendor surrounding them. Katara had to admit that it was very impressive, although her attention was mostly focused on the stunning red two-piece bikini Azula had slipped into. It suddenly felt as if Azula wasn't going to be the only one left flustered today.

"Why don't you go outside and check the roof?" Azula asked. "I'll be with you in a moment."

The two Water Tribe girls stepped past the sliding glass doors that separated the penthouse suite from the open roof area, ending up at the side of a large swimming pool of turquoise colored water. Next to the swimming pool, there was a bubbling hot tub, large enough for at least six people. At the side of the hot tub, there was a tray with an ice bucket, a bottle inside said bucket and three champagne flutes. It seemed as if Azula had not sat idly and had prepared well for their visit.

"So, what do you think?" Azula asked, joining them outside, sunglasses hiding her amber eyes.

"It's absolutely amazing!" Katara exclaimed. She felt thoroughly impressed. "We're going to have so much fun hanging out with you, Azula, won't we, Yue?" The other Water Tribe girl nodded excitedly at that.

"Good," Azula smiled, appearing satisfied. She walked up to the tray with the ice bucket and pulled out the bottle. "I thought we should kick this tournament off in style. A bottle of Dom Perignon should do the trick." She began to work on opening the champagne bottle. "Feel free to jump into the hot tub, you two."

Yue and Katara walked up to the edge of the hot tub. Yue turned to Katara. "Now," she whispered, the two of them turning to face Azula. "Oh, Azula?" Yue called out. Azula looked up at them, at which point Yue and Katara both let their bathrobes slip from their shoulders and pool at their feet.

Azula froze at the sight and the bottle of Dom Perignon fell from her hands. As it hit the floor tiles, the cork became loose and was expelled from the bottle neck with great speed, whizzing right past Azula's ear and miraculously not hitting her. Azula quickly reached down and grabbed the bottle before any of the precious liquid became spilled. "Are you two trying to kill me?" she hissed, completely red in the face.

"Oh dear, are you alright?" Katara asked, now feeling a little guilty about the prank. On the other hand, the way Azula was blushing so furiously was both amusing and rewarding.

"Of course, I'm alright, why wouldn't I be alright?" Azula huffed, quickly averting her eyes. "Crazy Northern bitches," she added quietly, starting to pour the champagne flutes.

"Did you see that?" Yue giggled. "Even her ears have turned red." Azula steadfastly ignored the comment, focusing on pouring the champagne. "Anyway, let's get in, Kat. Have you been in a hot tub before?"

"Not that I know of," Katara shrugged, carefully following Yue into the bubbling, warm water and settling in next to her friend. "Oh wow… this feels really relaxing," Katara immediately found herself enjoying the sensations.

"Let me know if you want me to change the settings for water temperature," Azula said, bringing a flute of champagne each for her two friends. "Personally, I like it even hotter than I've set it, but I figured that you two would be weaklings."

"Fair enough," Katara laughed. She took a sip of the insanely expensive champagne. It tasted divine.

"I think we would probably want it to be a little cooler," Yue said, a blissful look on her face. "Not because we're weaklings, though. We're Water Tribe and we're not used to such heat. But we can keep the temperature as it is, as a happy compromise."

"Well, aren't you agreeable," Azula grinned, returning with her own flute of champagne and climbing into the hot tub to join them. "By the way, you should see the bar in the suite. Obviously, my father had told the hotel manager to clear out all the alcohol from it, but I bribed two of the waitresses and they smuggled so much booze into the suite that it would take two dozen raging alcoholics to empty it again."

"Azula, you are literally becoming one of my most treasured friends," Yue grinned at the Fire Nation girl.

"I don't think we should indulge in drinking before the actual match days," Katara tried to remain the voice of reason.

"Obviously not, but a bottle of champagne or a couple of wine bottles aren't going to hurt much," Azula shrugged.

"And we can party a little harder in the evening before the off-day," Yue suggested with an eager look on her face.

"We are definitely doing that," Azula nodded, delicately sipping her champagne. "Two and a half weeks of total freedom from my father, from everything. I am so making the best use of it."

"You go, girl," Yue chuckled, high-fiving Azula, a little awkwardly. "So, it all kicks off again tomorrow, eh? Who are we all playing against? I know that for me it's that Fire Nation boy, Kei Lo. Considering that he couldn't even qualify last year, I doubt I'll have much trouble."

"Nah, he's pathetic," Azula sighed, appearing bored. "It's Meng Li for me. I wonder if I could get away with giving her some kind of advantage."

"Don't get too overconfident, you two! Especially you, Azula. I'm surprised to hear you talking like that after what happened last year with Joo Dee in the first round," Katara chided them both.

"Ugh, don't remind me, mom," Azula groaned. Yue giggled at that. "Anyway, Katara, who are you playing against?"

"Kori Morishita," Katara replied. "That's why I don't want to drink too much. She's wildly inconsistent, sure, but on her good days, Kori is actually a threat."

"That's a very good point," Yue nodded. "But you're not going to have a hangover from a little bit of champagne, so don't stress about it, Kat."

"I could not be any less stressed than I am right now, this hot tub is seeing to it with those awesome jets," Katara said, her voice turning into an almost-purr. "The whole experience feels almost org-" she stopped herself just in time, blushing upon realizing what she had been about to say.

"You were about to say organic, weren't you?" Yue laughed at her.

"Oh yes, it's a highly organic experience," Katara chuckled, a little nervously.

"I don't even know what you're going on about, you crazy bitches," Azula laughed, finishing off her champagne. "I need a refill," she climbed out of the hot tub and then brought the whole bucket of ice over to the edge of the hot tub to make it easier to handle future refills.

"So," Yue spoke up a while later, a gleam appearing in her eyes. "I'm sure we're all feeling very confident about winning the tournament this year, right?"

"I feel like this is my year," Katara nodded with certainty.

"In your dreams, Katara," Azula snorted. "I'm so done with losing. But you can have the second spot after me."

"No way," Yue shook her head. "I'm happy for the three of us to stand on the podium, but I'm going to be on the top step, while you two can fight over the lower steps." The two other girls immediately reacted to Yue's words and an argument was about to break out, before Yue stopped it by raising her hand. "Look, I only brought this up because I wanted to propose a bet," she said, looking excited.

"I am never going to shy away from a bet, you should know that," Azula insisted.

"I don't know," Katara looked less certain. "What exactly do you have in mind, Yue?"

"So, I was thinking…" Yue began. "We're all going to attend the after-party this year, right?" Katara and Azula both nodded at that. "How about, if one of us wins the tournament, then the two who didn't win would have to attend the after-party dressed in sexy maid outfits and cater to the whims and desires of the winner. Within reason, of course."

"Hah! You are so on! I have always dreamed of having two sexy Water Tribe servant girls," Azula laughed. She then realized what she had said and almost spat out her champagne, turning red as a beet. "I mean…"

"Haha!" Yue was giggling like mad, elbowing Katara under the water. "It seems like the supposedly straight girl fancies us!"

"It's not like that at all-" Azula began to protest, but Katara cut her off.

"Come on, Azula, you're straight only because your father insists that you should be, and it doesn't really work like that," Katara said, ignoring Azula's silent fuming.

"I agree, Kat, but you haven't said whether you're accepting the bet," Yue teased her.

"I don't know, it seems kind of silly," Katara sighed.

"So, what you're saying is that you are not at all confident about winning the tournament," Azula remarked with a knowing smirk.

"I so am!" Katara insisted. "Alright," she caved with a sigh. "You're on. The bet has been accepted."

Next chapter: We'll cover the first three rounds of the tournament, and take a look at how the relationship dynamic between Azula, Katara and Yue begins to shift.

Chapter Text

The first three days of the tournament flew right by Azula and the small group she had come to consider her friends. Hanging out together in her penthouse suite and practicing Pai Sho together made a profound impact on them all, and they were off to great starts in the tournament. Azula, Katara and Aang had perfect records after three rounds, Yue was only slightly behind, having drawn her game with Teo Guyuk, while Toph was a further half a point behind, courtesy of a dramatic and hard fought defeat at the hands of Kori Morishita. Still, viewed as a group, their performance had been stellar even despite Katara's concerns that they were going a little too hard on the drinks. She was clearly wrong, because the results spoke for themselves.

Azula was definitely over the moon about the chance to hang out with Katara in particular, but there were Complications. Azula wasn't always the sharpest tool in the shed when it came to figuring out her own emotions. Some people might even say that she was embarrassingly oblivious. But some things were obvious even to her. It was the previous year in Ba Sing Se that she had started to notice some things about Katara, things she had dismissed at the time. Knowing what her father would do if he knew that his daughter even entertained romantic notions about another girl was a powerful deterrent that helped Azula to brush these wayward thoughts of hers aside.

It was now more than year and a half since Azula had last seen Zirin, and her feelings for the older Fire Nation girl had faded. But a young and passionate heart apparently could not remain unmoved for long. When Katara and Yue had shucked their bathrobes and remained standing in front of Azula in their sexy white bikinis, Azula knew that she was in serious trouble.

Azula actually found Yue just as physically appealing as she did Katara. The white-haired girl from Agna Qel'a was infuriatingly gorgeous. But Azula could not imagine having a bond with her the way she had with Katara. Katara always made sure that Azula felt like she could tell her everything and that she wouldn't be judged for it. (Of course, Azula couldn't really tell Katara everything, but that was beyond the point since it had to do with Azula and her father, not with Katara.) Yue was the fellow rich glamour girl that Azula wanted to impress, instead of opening up to about her problems and insecurities.

Of course, at the start of the tournament, Katara had been a bit annoying, trying to catch her for a one on one conversation and press Azula for more information about where things stood with her father, about her plans after turning eighteen late in the summer, and about all the other things that Azula couldn't and didn't want to talk about with Katara, not without greatly worrying or endangering her best friend. And Azula didn't want to spend two and a half weeks with a freaked out and worried Katara Enuaraq. She wanted to hang out with a relaxed and fun-loving Katara, and so she had done her best to reassure Katara that she had a solid plan to make a clean break with her father once she came of age. Azula wasn't sure whether Katara had believed her, but she seemed to be a little more relaxed and hadn't pressed the issue since that talk, so it seemed as if Azula was in the clear.

Now Azula simply had to make sure that nothing else happened between her and Katara, especially something that could have serious consequences. Azula knew that she wasn't great at reading the signs when it came to Katara, or anyone else for that matter. Katara was very affectionate towards her, and she liked to touch a lot (and that was more than fine with Azula), but it wasn't really the way Azula remembered as accepted even in her own family before the divorce, when it had still been somewhat functional. So, on one hand, Azula felt as if Katara was probably really into her, but then again, she kept noticing that Katara was the same with Yue, and to a lesser extent with Aang and Toph. And Yue was just as affectionate and touchy-feely with Katara. Even more confusingly, Yue was becoming pretty comfortable with putting her arms around Azula and occasionally cuddling up to her (again, Azula was totally cool with that). But it all just seemed to suggest to Azula that maybe Katara wasn't actually into her romantically, and that this level of affection was just normal for Water Tribe girls in general.

This explanation made a lot of sense to Azula, but it also made her feel a touch disappointed, especially when she felt her own infatuation towards Katara growing. Azula desperately hoped that she could keep it reined in, but she wasn't sure how good of a job she was doing. The amount of times she had been caught staring at Katara – and quite a few times at Yue – before turning away, red in the face, suggested that she was terrible at keeping her emotions at bay. All the drinks they were consuming also tore down the social barriers and loosened the tongues, so Azula was sure that she had already blurted out something inappropriate and incriminating on a few occasions.

All this underage drinking they had engaged in had been fairly low-key up to this point, but of course Katara, being the self-appointed mom of the group, had raised a stink about Toph taking part in the drinking. Azula didn't understand what the problem was there. Toph was already fifteen, which seemed as good as an adult to Azula. Besides, surely Toph was the one who knew what was best for Toph. Not that Katara could seriously do anything about it if Toph decided to have a glass of wine or champagne with them. Azula had no illusions about Toph being well capable of wrestling Katara. She could just imagine Toph slinging the Water Tribe girl over her shoulder before tossing her into the swimming pool. There was no messing around with Toph Beifong, and seriously, Azula loved that about the younger girl.

At least there were no issues with Aang drinking because he would just flatly refuse to accept the offered booze. But at least it didn't make Aang a dull stick in the mud. Somehow, even without alcohol, he remained very hyper and excited. Maybe it had something to do with hanging out with four highly attractive girls, but he certainly didn't act about it in a creepy and obnoxious way like most boys probably would. Azula wondered if maybe he wasn't into girls, but she didn't feel like it was her place to ask. In any case, as far as she was concerned, Aang was a pretty cool kid and she was perfectly fine hanging out with him. Anybody with a pet yak had to be awesome, Azula figured.

On the evening of the third round, ahead of the tournament's off-day, they had really cranked up the entertainment and the flow of booze in the penthouse suite. Azula had found a book of cocktail recipes and they had made a group effort of putting together some of the more interesting cocktails. None of the recipes they had tried to put together ended up looking as they were supposed to look judging by the pictures in the book, but they had all ended up being delicious. Also, the trouble with cocktails was that while they did not seem like they packed a lot of punch, they had a tendency to sneak up on the unsuspecting drinkers. The four girls had soon ended up fairly plastered, wearing stupid and drunk grins on their faces, hugging and laughing like idiots.

It was a good thing that Aang hadn't been drinking, because Azula had proposed the incredibly stupid idea of sitting outside by the pool. Aang had quickly herded them all back inside, because it was very likely that one of them would have just passed out into the pool and possibly drowned. Instead, they ended up splayed out on the cushions in the large living space of the penthouse suite, giggling drunkenly as they desperately tried to remain awake.

"We should play something!" Yue suddenly exclaimed.

"Yeah!" Toph echoed drunkenly. "Let's practice some Pai Sho!" she added with a loud chuckle, since it was so obviously a terrible idea. They'd probably end up misplacing half of the tiles. Or try to eat the tiles, thinking they were candy.

"What's a good game to play when you're drunk?" Azula asked. "Not that I'm drunk, but the rest of you certainly are."

"Well, truth or dare, obviously," Toph replied.

"Alright, let's do it!" Azula exclaimed with all the enthusiasm of a drunkard. "How do you actually play it?" she sought to clarify.

"Wait, you've never played truth or dare?" Yue asked, sounding disbelieving.

"Well, no," Azula replied. "It sounds like some lower class entertainment that I wouldn't know about. There's obviously nothing wrong with that. I'm just saying."

"Well, the way we've usually played it involves taking an empty bottle and spinning it. Whoever the bottle neck points towards has to choose between a truth and a dare, and the one who spun the bottle then gets to ask their question or put forth the dare," Katara explained.

Azula suddenly decided that she wasn't actually very keen on this game, especially the part where one was supposed to tell the truth, because that sounded kind of scary and dangerous. But Toph and Yue in particular seemed really excited about playing it, so Azula decided to go along with it. She supposed that she could just keep choosing dares when it came down to that part.

Soon enough, an empty bottle had been found (and there were plenty of those to choose from), and they drew lots to decide who would do the first spin of the bottle. Aang won the drawing of lots and to Azula's complete lack of surprise, the neck of the traitorous bottle ended up pointing at her after Aang's spin. "Alright, Azula!" Aang cackled. "Truth or dare?"

"Dare," Azula crossed her arms on her chest.

"Alright," Aang mused, looking thoughtful. He then seemed to get an idea. "So, I heard you boasting earlier about how flexible you are. I dare you to do the splits right now, in front of us."

"Pfft, easy peasy," Azula shrugged, getting up to her feet and doing some cursory warm up to stretch her quads and hamstrings, before settling into the position and slowly lowering herself into a perfect split. "Satisfied?" she asked, turning to look at the group.

"You've completed the dare!" Aang announced happily. It was only then that Azula noticed that Katara and Yue were both eyeing her with heavy blushes coloring their cheeks. Azula immediately felt a little self-conscious and pulled out of the splits, rising from the floor.

"I'm remarkably near sighted, my vision is even blurrier than normal after all those cocktails, and I'm also not at all into girls, but even I could tell that looked seriously hot," Toph commented. "Also, it should be illegal to attempt that while wearing a bikini."

"I'll say," Yue managed, having recovered as she took a large swig straight from the bottle of Chardonnay. Katara nodded at that, plucking the bottle from Yue's hands and taking a big gulp as well, washing down the blush coloring her cheeks.

Azula tried to ignore reactions of the others as she sat down again. "I guess it's my turn," she said, taking the bottle and spinning it. It landed on Katara. "Right," Azula began, a little uncertainly. "Truth or d-"

"Truth," Katara replied almost immediately, looking at Azula with those soft cerulean eyes of hers.

"Of course," Azula nodded. There were a lot of things she wanted to ask Katara and hear a truthful answer, mostly about what the other girl truly felt towards her. But then again, Azula didn't really want to know the truth if the answer was that Katara was romantically into her. That would just hurt to know, because they couldn't be together, not when Ozai remained such a threat and the whole world was just so fucking unfair. So, she wasn't going to ask about Katara's feelings for her, especially not in front of everyone. But Azula also wanted to ask something a bit spicy instead of something lame like 'what's your favorite color'? "Right, so… how many boys have you made out with?" she asked, failing to come up with anything more interesting.

"Right, well that's an easy one," Katara laughed. "The answer is none!"

"Seriously? That's boring," Azula frowned. "I mean, I can understand why you wouldn't want to, but I thought that maybe you would have still tried."

"No, I didn't feel pressured to do that. I mean, quite a few boys have tried to kiss me, but it didn't go well for them," Katara laughed. Aang's smile faltered, but only for a moment before it returned. "Anyway, have I answered to your satisfaction?" Azula nodded. "Right, here we go," Katara spun the bottle. The bottle neck ended up pointing right back at Azula. "Truth or-"

"Truth," Azula misspoke. "No, fuck! I meant dare!"

"Sorry!" Yue grinned broadly. "No getting out of this one, truth it is!"

"Ugh, I hate you all," Azula groused. She wondered why she had misspoken like that. Was it because Katara had become synonymous with the concept of truth somewhere in her subconscious? That was the sort of explanation one could arrive at only while seriously inebriated, and it also seemed as likely as any other explanation.

"Alright, I'm going to put the same question right back to you," Katara grinned. "How many boys have you made out with?"

"Umm, one," Azula ground out reluctantly.

"Oh, really?" Yue looked intrigued. "Are you bi? I thought you were a raging lesbian just like Katara here. Maybe we can be bi buddies?"

"I am neither a bi nor a lesbian!" Azula protested, but her words were met only with amused laughter.

"Come on, Azula, you can't lie when you've made the choice to speak the truth," Katara winked at her. "Anyway, you have to tell us about that time when you tried to date a boy. What happened?"

Azula really didn't want to remember or talk about what had happened with Jet. That entire episode still made her a little sick when she recalled seeing the boy being carried away by the paramedics. "It was last year in Ba Sing Se," she finally said reluctantly. "I went on a date with this boy, Jet. He was a waiter in a restaurant I went to with my father. It was… nice? We kissed, and I thought that maybe I could make it work. But then my father's thugs showed up and beat him within an inch of his life."

Everyone suddenly became silent and looked shocked, except for Yue who broke out into giggles. She quickly stopped upon seeing the reaction of the others, giving Azula an incredulous stare. "Wait, you're not shitting us?" she blinked. Azula shook her head. "Spirits, that is so fucked up! At least I didn't have to fear my dad doing that to Sokka when we were dating. Shit, I'm so sorry, Azula."

"It doesn't matter," Azula shrugged. "Can we move on with the game?" She took the bottle and spun it again, having received nods from the others. It settled on Aang.

"Alright, this is probably a terrible idea, but I'm going to tempt fate by saying dare," the Air Nation boy grinned. Azula grinned back at him before pushing the bottle of rose Zinfandel she had been nursing towards Aang. "Yep, it was a terrible idea," Aang sighed.

"Come on, don't be a wuss," Azula urged him. "I'm not daring you to drink the rest of the bottle, just take a good swig. It's not going to kill you."

"I really don't want to, but… here goes," Aang for some reason pinched his nose before raising the bottle to his lips and taking a swig. Aang had clearly expected the experience to be horrible, but afterwards he licked his lips, looking as if he would gladly take another swig. Azula reached out and quickly took the bottle back. "That was really good, sweet and fruity! I expected it to taste awful!"

"Why would you expect that, Aang?" Yue laughed. "Wine is both tasty and good for you."

"Well, the only time I had alcohol was three years ago when Zuko tricked me into trying some beer from a can," Aang replied. "It tasted so bitter, ugh, vile stuff!"

"Of course, it would have to be Zuko," Azula rolled her eyes. "I can just see him drinking the cheapest and most disgusting beer. Anyway, the bottle is not spinning."

"Oh right!" Aang quickly spun the bottle and it ended up pointing at Toph.

"Truth," Toph stated.

"Alright, let's see…" Aang mused. "Ah, I've got it! Toph, tell us what qualities you are looking for in a boyfriend."

"Oh, very smooth, Twinkletoes," Toph laughed, elbowing her best friend. "I'll tell you what the most important thing I'm looking for in a boyfriend is. I would want him to have more hair than you do!" Everyone broke into laughter, including Aang himself. While they were still busy laughing, Toph spun the bottle and it ended up pointing at Yue. "Truth or dare, Moonmaiden?"

"Haha, Moonmaiden?" Yue laughed. "Also, give me a dare."

"Awesome. Alright, let's up the ante a bit, while we're all sauced and stupid," Toph chuckled. "I dare you to kiss one of us here. Anyone at all, but I mean a real kiss, not a wussy one!"

"Oh damn, shit just got real," Yue said. She looked a little uncertain at first, but Azula could see that she was eyeing Katara, as if trying to gauge the other girl's reaction. Azula tried to do the same, but for once, Katara wasn't giving anything obvious away. She seemed eager, but also nervous. Seriously, if Yue and Katara were into each other, Azula thought that it would solve a lot of her problems and she wouldn't have to worry about Katara wanting something romantic with her, and then she wouldn't have to fear Ozai hurting Katara. But at the same time, why did the idea of Yue kissing Katara kind of… hurt a little, somewhere deep inside her chest?

But then, suddenly, Azula was no longer thinking about Yue kissing Katara, because quick as a lightning, Yue had moved up to her. The next thing Azula knew were Yue's lips crashing against hers in a kiss that took her by complete surprise. For the lack of better ideas, Azula decided to kiss Yue back and… well, it felt damn good. Yue was up there with Zirin, tied for her best kiss so far. And still, as they parted, the first thought on Azula's mind was whether kissing Katara would feel even better. For some reason, she was convinced that it would trump all of her other past experiences.

"Alright, that was… something," Toph remarked, looking impressed. Aang looked a little out of it, and probably not from that one sip of wine. Azula was mostly interested in Katara's reaction, and it was difficult to ascertain. Azula was relieved that Katara at least did not look angry, but she did look quite surprised.

"I'd say that fulfilled the dare," Yue smirked. Toph could only nod at her. The spinning bottle stopped at Azula, because of course it did. "Dare, right?" Yue asked with a mischievous look on her face. Azula nodded. "So, if I told you to kiss anyone here, would you just kiss me back?" Yue asked.

"I guess that's for you to find out," Azula replied. She kept glancing at the slightly nervous looking Katara. Damn it, she definitely wanted to kiss Katara, she just didn't think that it was a good idea to do so. Maybe it would be smarter to kiss Yue. She was locked into an arranged marriage, so it should be safe to make out with her. "So, is that your dare, then?" Azula asked after Yue had kept silent for a while.

"Hmm… no," Yue shook her head a moment later. Had she noticed that Azula had been looking at Katara almost the entire time? Did Yue think that Azula was going to kiss Katara and she didn't want for that to happen? Well, that was odd. "I'll just dare you to polish off that bottle of Zinfandel you've been nursing. Down the hatch it goes," Yue snickered.

"Is that wise?" Katara asked, sounding worried.

"Bah, don't worry, I can take it," Azula scoffed. She was pretty drunk and finishing off a little more than a third of the wine bottle all by herself wasn't going to make it any easier for her to remain awake, but Azula wasn't someone who backed down from a challenge. She brought the bottle to her lips and glugged the rest of it down. "There, that wasn't so… ooh, woah…" she suddenly felt very warm, but also very unsteady, gripped by an irresistible urge to lie down.

"Looks like Azula's about to go down for the count," Toph laughed.

"Nonshense, I'm perfectly s-s-shober…" Azula somehow managed to utter. That was pretty much her final memory of the evening.

"Is she going to be alright?" Aang asked as the group of four exited from the elevator on the fifth floor where their respective rooms were located.

"Yes, she'll be fine," Yue laughed. "But she'll probably have to deal with a light headache in the morning. By the way, Toph, do you know what to do if you're hangover?"

"I ain't some novice at this, Moonmaiden," Toph scowled. "Pickles and pickle juice, that's my kind of hangover cure."

"Eww, that is gross," Katara winced. "I'll stick with orange juice and Tylenol, thanks. But hopefully, I won't have any hangover."

"Well, you didn't drink as much as Azula did. Or even Toph or I," Yue smiled at her. Toph and Aang had by now disappeared inside their own rooms, leaving the two Water Tribe girls to walk down towards their rooms at the very end of the corridor. "Kat?" Yue asked once they had finally reached the end of the hallway and Katara was already reaching for the door handle.

"What is it, Yue?" Katara stopped and smiled at her, in that special way that had lately become so important to Yue.

She took in a deep and steadying breath to calm her nerves before speaking up again. Being pretty wasted certainly helped with the anxiety. "I was wondering if you would like to stay up for a bit with me," Yue managed. "What do you say? Please?"

"Sure, although I must warn you, I'm pretty sleepy, so I might not be a good conversh-… ugh, person to talk with," Katara chuckled drunkenly, agreeing without much thought. Yue opened the doors for her, welcoming Katara inside her quarters. Soon they were sitting side by side in Yue's bed, their backs against the wall, talking silly nonsense while Yue tried to work up the courage to get to what she really wanted to talk about with Katara.

Ever since that cursed winter holiday, Yue had felt that she had not only broken up with Sokka, but that she was also in danger of losing Katara as well. Oh, they had remained just as close and friendly with their constant phone calls, but… something had changed because of that stupid, untimely and ill-advised kiss that Yue had attempted in that early hour of late December night. Katara had never been angry with her during their many years of friendship, and she hadn't been outwardly angry with Yue even then. But Katara had been quietly disappointed in the way Yue had acted, and in many ways, that had felt so much worse.

This fear that she might have made a mistake that could ruin their relationship had made Yue finally understand and acknowledge something that she had tried to deny for so long. It wasn't just Katara who was in love with her. She was in love with Katara. Yue knew that she should have realized and acted upon it a long time ago. Then again, they would have faced the same problems and worse than she had faced with Sokka. Her father would have never approved of her being involved with a girl from a poor family.

Still, lately Yue had been thinking more and more about her future, and she had come up with a scenario where she could both retain her inheritance and possibly have a relationship with Katara. Katara wanted to study medicine after graduating high school, and for that purpose, she was looking to enroll in the BSSU. But Agna Qel'a had a very prestigious medical college as well. Yue was prepared to use some of the funds that would be available to her upon coming of age to cover the cost of Katara's studies and also to rent her a posh apartment in the capital of the Water Tribes. Yue reasoned that she could manipulate Hahn into either becoming disinterested in her or simply push him towards other women, which would leave her free to see Katara as much as she pleased. She and Katara had been friends for so long. Yue figured that nobody would suspect them of having a relationship of a completely different nature behind closed doors. It seemed like a pretty good deal for them both. Katara would get to live comfortably, enjoy a relationship with Yue, and have a chance to pursue the career she wanted. It was a great offer. Now Yue just needed to somehow work up to making said offer.

And Yue was determined to do so without any further delays because another fear had popped up its ugly head as of late. The previous few days, Yue had observed the way Azula and Katara were acting around each other, and it was spurring her into action. The two girls were clearly hitting it off very well, making Yue become a little jealous. Azula would probably never admit it, but Yue was convinced that Azula was already head over heels in love with Katara. As for Katara, it was harder to pin down what her best friend felt towards Azula. There was clearly great fondness with the potential of it blossoming into something more… which was why Yue felt like she needed to act fast.

"Kat?" Yue asked softly, after they had been chattering a while about some inconsequential nonsense. "I hope you are not angry at me for kissing Azula earlier," she said.

"I'm not angry," Katara shrugged. "But I'm a little confused. Why did you do it? I didn't think you were into her."

"I'm not. I'm into you, Kat," Yue said, blushing. "It's just that… after what happened during the winter holiday, I wasn't sure how you felt about me trying to kiss you."

"I wasn't happy then, but Yue, that's long since in the past," Katara smiled at her. "Come on, you know how I feel about you. That hasn't changed."

Yue felt instantly relieved, letting out a sigh she didn't realize she had been holding. "Spirits, I thought I had ruined what we have," she said.

"You haven't," Katara replied, still smiling. "Though I don't know what you're referring to by 'what we have'. Are you talking about our friendship or… something more?"

"Do you still want something more with me?" Yue asked hesitantly.

"Of course, dummy," Katara sighed. "But you can't give it to me, I know, I know. I am aware of all the reasons of why we can't be together, alright?"

"What if I told you that we can be together?" Yue asked. "And that I want it, too?"

"Are you serious?" Katara turned around in the bed to stare at Yue, wide-eyed. "You're not just saying that to mess with the drunk old me?"

"I'm being absolutely serious, Katara," Yue spoke earnestly, also turning to face Katara with burning intensity in her eyes. "It has taken me an unforgivable amount of time to realize that I want to be with you, alright? I've never been more serious about anything in my life."

Katara's eye shone with tears at Yue's words. "Never in my wildest dreams could I imagine that this dream would come true," Katara whispered. Her arms snaked around Yue's waist and she pulled the other girl closer, into a searing kiss. As their lips crashed together, Katara leaned down onto the bed, pulling Yue on top of her as they continued to trade heated kisses.

"I probably wouldn't dare to say something like this if I wasn't seriously tipsy, but…" Katara whispered shyly, holding Yue close against her. "Do you want me to stay with you tonight?"

Yue's breath caught in her chest. "Only if you're sure, Kat," she whispered at her… girlfriend? Did she dare to use that word?

"Am I sure…" Katara's eyes were full of soft, all encompassing warmth. "Yue, I've been sure for years…"

Next chapter: An important detail in Katara and Yue's would-be relationship may have not been properly communicated. We'll see whether it causes some tension the morning after…

Chapter Text

Katara opened her eyes, her first thought of the morning to determine just how bad of a hangover she was nursing. She gently shook her head, experiencing only a mild headache. It seemed as if the excesses of the previous evening had left her largely unaffected. She rose slightly upwards in the bed, letting out a yawn and only then realizing that she was not in her own hotel room, suddenly remembering the reason for it. And she also realized the reason why she found herself having slept in the nude throughout the night, her bathrobe lying discarded next to Yue's bed.

Yue herself was nowhere in sight, but it didn't stop Katara's cheeks from heating up at the memories of the night before. There were sounds coming from the adjacent bathroom, which meant that Yue was probably taking a shower. Katara used the opportunity to quickly put her bikini back on before throwing the bathrobe over her shoulders for good measure. She briefly considered the idea of fleeing back to her own room where she could make better sense of everything that had happened, but before she could put her plan into action, Yue stepped out of the bathroom, wrapped in a large white towel, a smaller towel wrapped around her head.

"Oh!" Yue gasped at the sight of Katara, then blushing. "Good morning," she smiled, coming up to Katara and leaning in to gently kiss her on the cheek. "How are you feeling? Do you have a hangover?"

"I feel pretty good, thanks," Katara replied with a bashful smile. "Only a very mild hangover, I guess."

"Just like me, then," Yue smiled. "All the same, I called the room service and ordered the richest and greasiest items from the breakfast menu for both of us. They should be up here any moment-" she was interrupted by a knock on the doors. "Now," Yue grinned. "Feel free to duck into the bathroom if you're feeling skittish, by the way."

"Yeah, I'll do that," Katara nodded, needing a bathroom visit for more reasons than just to hide from the eyes of gossiping hotel staff. She emerged a few minutes later feeling much refreshed, even if she had decided against taking a shower, not with all of her essentials back in her own room across the hall. Yue had already picked up her tray of food and started on the divinely smelling breakfast, and Katara hesitated no longer, digging into the greasy offerings of eggs, bacon, grilled cheese sandwich and a glass of orange juice.

"So," Yue began after they had been eating in comfortable silence for a while. She looked rather unusually embarrassed and shy. "Do you… want to talk about last night? And where it leaves us?" she asked.

"I assumed that it would leave us being girlfriends," Katara smiled at the other girl. She felt pretty embarrassed herself, though probably for different reasons than Yue. Katara was painfully aware of just how inexperienced she was, and how awkward and clumsy she had been with Yue. Having been more than a little tipsy had definitely helped. But Yue was here and seemingly still wanted to be with her, so maybe she hadn't been too awful. "I must say, you really took me by surprise last night. I had all but given up on hope that I would be able to convince you to walk away from your father," she said, then frowning when she noticed Yue's reaction at her words, her girlfriend freezing and giving her a confused, wide-eyed stare.

"Wait a moment," Yue looked seriously worried now, and it immediately made Katara anxious as well. "Did I say that I was walking away from my father?"

Katara blinked in surprise. She tried to remember Yue's exact words the night before, which was not easy considering their state of inebriation. "Well, I guess not in those exact words," Katara admitted. "But what else could you have meant when you said that you had found a way for us to be together?"

"I… I had something else in mind, actually," Yue managed nervously, setting her plate of food aside. Katara did the same. "I was thinking about still going ahead with the arranged marriage so that I would have access to all of the necessary funds. I was thinking to use them to pay your tuition fees at the Agna Qel'a medical college, and I would also rent a splendorous apartment for you. I'm sure I would be able to find a way for us to see each other regularly."

"In secret, skulking behind closed doors, having to keep our relationship hidden from everyone," Katara summarized. She suddenly felt sick, and not from the hangover. What the fuck had Yue been thinking with this 'plan' of hers? Was she for real? "You're basically asking me to become your secret mistress. Yue, with everything that you know about me and the values I hold dear, did you seriously thought that this would be acceptable to me?"

"I know what you really want, Katara. I want the same, but I can never give it to you," Yue spoke, looking sad. "But I thought that this could be a good compromise. That's what real life is about, Katara, it's about compromising. Our ideal solutions hardly ever materialize."

"Don't patronize me," Katara snapped. She was quickly becoming very upset and angry. "I thought you knew me well enough to realize that I would not compromise about something like this. Either you walk away from your father, or we can't be together, at least not romantically. I will always support you as a friend and you know that… even if I'm really angry with you right now."

"I don't know what to say, Katara," Yue looked quite shattered. "I… I really thought you'd be happy. I don't know why I thought that."

"I'm actually really annoyed that you would assume something like that about me," Katara said, starting to pace back and forth the room, her anger mounting. "And now I'm seriously trying not to jump to the assumption that you ever so conveniently did not explain all of this to me the evening before. I'm really trying to convince myself here that you didn't do all of that just to get me in bed with you."

"What?" Yue looked absolutely shocked, but now also angry. "Now wait a minute here! I wouldn't want to sleep with you just once and then have us fall out like this! I want to be with you long-term, you idiot! How can you assume something so awful about me?"

"Well! It wouldn't be the first time you acted pretty dodgy, would it, Yue?" Katara glared, hands on her hips. "What about that fling with Suki back on Kyoshi Island? And the way you wanted to make out with me right after breaking up with Sokka? You can be pretty ignorant about the feelings of others and that's a fact!"

Yue winced as if she had been punched in the gut. Her anger immediately faded, and instead she began to cry. "Katara, I know… I have fucked it all up again, but please, you have to believe that I didn't mean for it to happen this way," she pleaded, her words interrupted by bouts of hiccupping. "I should have never tried this while we were both plastered, but I needed the courage, alright? I fucked up and I realize that now, but seriously… you can't think I was manipulating you. Can you?"

"I would not have offered to stay with you if I had known this plan of yours in detail, you can be sure of that," Katara snapped. Her expression softened a little at the genuine distress on Yue's face. She didn't think that Yue was faking it. And now that she remembered the events of the previous night more clearly, Katara had to admit that she had jumped to the conclusion a little too quickly, perhaps interpreting Yue's words in a way she had wished them to be heard. "Alright, fine. I take it back, Yue. I don't think you were manipulating me. It was a complete and utter miscommunication."

"Thank you," Yue exclaimed, looking a little more relieved, but still deeply unhappy. "I don't understand why I keep messing up like this, Katara, truly, I don't. I think I wanted to explain everything to you in detail, but after you hit me with that offer to stay the night, I just… I just couldn't think of anything else but that," she explained, blushing furiously.

"Okay, that's fair," Katara was quickly calming down as well, now feeling more regretful than angry. "I guess I made false assumptions and jumped the gun myself. We're both to blame, I suppose. This is why it's probably a bad idea to make these decisions under influence, right?"

"Yeah, no kidding, lesson learned," Yue laughed nervously. "Good grief, imagine if that had happened if either of us were with a guy. Shit, the potential disaster there."

"Ugh," Katara grimaced. She then gave Yue a piercing stare. "But let's be serious for a moment, Yue. I love you, I still do, but the only way we can be together is openly, without hiding from the world. If that can only happen through you walking away from your father, well, that's my stipulation and I'm not backing down from it."

"Understood," Yue nodded somberly. "You know I can't promise you that, right?"

"Then we remain friends," Katara smiled, despite her heart being stabbed and pierced by the pain of her long-cherished dreams falling apart. It had been nice to live the dream for about ten hours or so – and she had slept through most of that, too. "Also, wow… my first official relationship and it lasted less than a day. Yay, go me."

"Sorry," Yue mumbled. "Can we ever go back to how we used to be, after this?" she asked nervously.

"I don't know… I hope so," Katara sighed. "We have to try, for our own sake and for the sake of the others. They are your friends as much as they are mine. If one of us stops hanging out with the group, things will become really awkward. And Yue, I really want you to remain a part of the group. This isn't something that we can't get past, okay?" she said, trying to sound reassuring. Sure, things would probably be very strained between them, but really, nothing that horrible had happened, right? She had slept with Yue, sure, but… she had always wanted to sleep with Yue. She had simply wanted for it to happen under different, happier and more honest circumstances.

"I'm relieved to hear you say that, Kat," Yue sighed. "Still, I don't think I can face our friends today and be my normal fun-loving self."

"I can cover for you and tell them that your hangover is really bad," Katara offered. "But you're joining us again tomorrow, am I understood? I'm not taking no for an answer here."

"Understood, boss babe," Yue managed a weak smile. "Again… I'm really sorry it all happened the way it did. But let's try and work through this awkwardness, like you said. I'll be right back hanging out with you tomorrow, it's a promise."

"Alright, Yue," Katara also smiled as she turned to leave. She really didn't want to hold on to her anger at the other girl. It was just a stupid drunk misunderstanding, a case of complete miscommunication. She couldn't let something like that destroy years of friendship because it still remained too precious to her.

The embarrassing misunderstanding that had left a profound impact upon Katara's relationship with Yue had also left a similar impression on their performance at the Pai Sho board. They both played badly over the next three rounds, but because they were facing opposition of very different quality, Katara and Yue emerged from this rough patch with drastically differing results. Katara had at first muddled through wins over Kei Lo and On Ji Takeda which proved more complicated than necessary, but at least she had maintained her spotless record. That spotless record was ruined in the sixth round, however, when Teo Guyuk managed to force her into a draw.

Yue had been less fortunate with the outcome of her games. She had played badly and lost to Joo Dee in Round 4. She had played better in the next two rounds, but she had been facing Aang and Azula, and it hadn't been enough, so Yue was now on a streak of three subsequent losses, putting her right out of the running for the podium. She had slipped to the eight place in the standings, not only behind her four friends, but also trailing Teo, Kori and Joo Dee.

Toph and Aang were tied on five points, after Toph had won three games straight, and Aang had lost his spotless record by suffering defeat at the hands of Teo Guyuk. Katara was half a point ahead of them both and Azula still further ahead with six wins out of six. So far, Azula was absolutely crushing this. It seemed like she was absolutely thriving due to the supportive environment created by her new group of friends, feeling relaxed and confident at the Pai Sho board. Katara wondered how well Azula would be performing if she was still alone and isolated like years ago, but she really didn't want to think about that. Katara could not imagine being so heartless to wish that for her friend. She wanted Azula to be happy, even if it meant that her friend was becoming nigh unstoppable at the Pai Sho board.

The tournament in the Fire Fountain City was different from the previous years in that the games were being played in a large open air terrace, instead of a stuffy, not always well ventilated hall. This was a pleasant change of scenery, especially considering the Fire Nation heat, tempered by the persistent and refreshing breeze coming in from the waterfront. The only drawback for Katara was the increased level of noise coming in from the nearby street, the beach goers, and the flocks of gulls flying overhead. There were also fewer spectators this year because the makeshift stands erected next to the terrace were not very large.

It wasn't until the sixth round that Katara had actually paid any attention to the spectators, but as she stood and waited for the rest of her friends to gather following her draw with Teo, Katara finally looked up at the stands and immediately spotted the familiar face of her brother in the press box. Sokka was wearing a simple blue shirt and orange shorts, standing next to a cute auburn-haired girl with a camera hanging from her neck. She was wearing her baseball hat backwards and had a pencil stuck behind her ear, a pencil that she occasionally used to scribble something down in her notebook. While Katara was waiting for her friends to assemble before returning to Azula's penthouse suite, she decided to walk up to Sokka and his new girlfriend. Now that Katara had noticed them, it felt silly to pretend that she hadn't seen her own brother.

Sokka noticed her approach immediately, poking his girlfriend in the ribs. Suki blinked and then gave Katara an excited wave of the hand. With the press box being a little higher up in the stands, Sokka and Suki swiftly descended down the stairway to meet up with Katara at the ground level, speaking over the barrier that separated the terrace from the spectator stands.

"Hey sis, sorry about that tough break," Sokka smiled at her.

"Mhm, not one of my better games," Katara scowled. In truth, this was her third sub-par game in a row. Her two previous opponents just hadn't been as skilled as Teo to exploit her weakness. She then turned towards his brother's new girlfriend. "Well, since my brother isn't going to bother formally introducing us, I guess I'll do it all by myself. You must be the famous Suki," Katara said, extending her arm to the other girl who accepted it with a very firm and vigorous shake.

"That I am, though definitely not famous, or at least nowhere near as famous as you, Katara," Suki replied with a cheeky grin. Katara decided that she liked this girl, even if she couldn't imagine choosing her over Yue. Which was just as well, because Katara was done thirsting after Sokka's girlfriends, once had been enough already.

"You're still within touching distance of Azula," Sokka said. "Think you can take her, sis?"

Katara chuckled and shook her head. "Oh, I don't know about that, Sokka," she smiled. "Azula is on a roll this year, I'm not sure anyone can stop her."

"Uh… can I print that?" Suki asked with a gleam in her eyes.

"Umm, how about no?" Katara frowned. She suddenly realized that there might be an issue here. Suki seemed like a cute and funny girl, but she was a reporter, probably always chasing a scoop or a hot take. "I don't want Azula to think that I've given up already, because I really haven't," she added.

"Yeah, Suki, can we keep everything with my friends off the record please?" Sokka looked at his girlfriend.

"Sure, babe," Suki smiled at him, making a gesture across her lips. "There, my lips have been sealed."

"Thanks," Katara smiled at Suki, then turning back towards her brother. "Honestly, it's been a little weird this year, not having you hanging out with us, Sokka. It makes me just a bit sad."

"Yeah, I miss the others as well," Sokka nodded. He looked over Katara's shoulder and waved, smiling. Katara glanced behind her, spotting the group of her four friends standing there and patiently waiting for her to finish talking with her brother. They did not seem at all intent on approaching Katara, Sokka and Suki.

"I'm sorry babe, but the fact that you're dating a reporter might be putting them all off," Suki sighed, looking apologetic. "I really didn't want to create this barrier between you and your friends."

"No, I think it's something else, Suki," Sokka shook his head. "I think they're sticking up for Yue. Which is fair enough, I guess, they're free to take whichever side they choose. And I wouldn't want to make it weird for Yue or anyone, really."

"Nobody's taking any sides, Sokka. There are no sides to take," Katara shook her head. "Nobody is upset with you for what happened. Yue certainly isn't upset with you. I mean, she was the one who did the breaking up, and I thought you had forgiven her by now."

"Of course, I have. After I got over that initial shock and anger, I was actually quite relieved. And Suki has been awesome," Sokka grinned, pulling his new girlfriend close for a peck on the cheek. "I didn't think things with Yue would be weird, at least not from my side."

"I didn't think they would be weird on Yue's part, either," Katara said. She then realized that maybe things were weird because of Yue's brief fling with Suki. Katara had no idea whether Suki had told Sokka about what had happened, so perhaps she needed to keep her mouth shut about that. Besides, when speaking about things being weird, she had just slept with her brother's ex she had been thirsting after for years. Yeah, maybe right now hanging out in one big group would be just a little too awkward for all of them. "Anyway, at least come to the after-party, alright? I'll put your name down to make sure you're allowed to enter."

"Oh, you would? I heard that the after-party is going to be held in that cool downtown cocktail bar that Suki and I went to a few days ago," Sokka looked excited. "I'd love to go and hopefully toast your victory, Kat."

"Well, we'll see just what you get to toast," Katara smiled, then looking at Suki. "You're welcome too, of course, that goes without saying. Just… leave that camera behind, alright?"

"Understood, and that won't be a problem," Suki smiled brightly. "Thanks for stopping by, Katara. It was lovely to meet you after all this time."

"Yes, likewise," Katara nodded. "I'll see you both later," she added before turning to leave.

It was late in the afternoon following the sixth round of the tournament, and Azula was once again hosting a somewhat wild party for her group of friends at the penthouse suite. It was still too early in the day for the booze to be brought out, but it most certainly would be flowing eventually, considering tomorrow was the second off day of the tournament. Azula was relieved that they hadn't started to celebrate properly, because she had just received a phone call from the Sozin's Island estate, Azula's father calling to check up on her.

The conversation had felt a little disturbing. Ozai had praised Azula about her progress, sounding certain that she was well on her way to claim the top spot. Ozai had also urged her not to relax, adding that he would be disappointed if she missed out this year after coming so close. But there had been no clear threats of what would happen should she fail. In fact, the conversation had been almost sickeningly sweet, with Ozai using words such as 'honey' and calling her 'precious'. Combined with the massive bouquet of flowers he had sent earlier in the morning, Azula felt seriously disturbed by her father's attitude. She was starting to think that she actually preferred the berating and the physical violence to what all this caring and tenderness was starting to point towards.

Having finally gotten off the phone with Ozai, Azula took a while to steady her nerves, only then noticing that Katara had walked back inside after her, standing by the bar and fixing herself a drink. She seemed to have been standing there for quite a while, however, and Azula realized that Katara must have been trying to listen in on her phone conversation with Ozai. "Is everything alright?" Katara asked immediately as Azula went to rejoin her at the bar, further incriminating herself.

"Why wouldn't everything be alright?" Azula shrugged. She had used the brief moment of time well to recompose herself and so was able to lie convincingly. "Honestly, Katara, I thought you were above listening in on other people's conversations."

Katara turned red in the face. "Sorry," she said apologetically. "But you know how worried I am for you and the way things stand with your father."

"There's no reason for you to worry, Katara, seriously," Azula sighed. "I have things well under control. You'll soon see for yourself." She really had nothing under control. Her father's change of attitude was ominous and she had no idea how to protect herself from what it was all pointing towards. She still did not dare to put into words or even thoughts that which she was starting to suspect her father of planning. A part of her still couldn't believe it despite all the warning signs.

"Spirits, you're just like Yue, or even worse than her," Katara exclaimed in frustration. "It's like both of you don't realize just what this will do to you!"

Azula merely offered a neutral smile in response, sensing an opportunity to ask Katara something that had been bothering her for a few days now. Azula thought that it was weird how Yue had skipped a day of hanging out with them, and she hadn't believed the hangover excuse for a moment. And when Yue rejoined them the next day, she was not her usual self, appearing distant and subdued, rarely smiling. Katara's mood had also dropped considerably. Although she remained just as affectionate with Azula, Toph and Aang, her interactions with Yue had felt tense. On top of all that, the level of play of both Katara and Yue had dropped off considerably, and it was particularly evident in Yue's case. Something had happened between the two girls, Azula could sense it quite clearly. She was good at spotting these nuances in the emotional states of other people, but she wasn't quite so good when it came to her own feelings. In any case, she needed to know what had happened.

"Speaking of Yue," Azula said in a meaningful tone. Katara immediately looked startled. "What's going on between you two?" she demanded to know.

"I've no idea what you're talking about," Katara attempted to lie. It was an embarrassingly pathetic effort, just as Azula had expected it to be. Katara was quite simply a terrible liar.

"I'm being serious here," Azula sighed. "Are you mad at Yue because she kissed me during that truth or dare?"

"What? No! I mean… I thought it was a little weird, but… no, I'm not mad about that," Katara shook her head. "Alright, so… we had a misunderstanding. But we're going to be okay, I think."

"It must have been some misunderstanding," Azula remarked.

Katara looked at her and frowned. "Why should I tell you more when you're clearly holding back about how things are with your father?" she asked.

"Because there's not much to tell you about, Katara," Azula exclaimed in frustration. Katara looked adamant, however. It seemed that Azula would have to come up with at least something. "Seriously, I've been trying to be as obedient as I possibly can. I'm doing everything to keep my father happy. In the meanwhile, I'm trying to find something incriminating I could threaten him with in exchange for my freedom."

"Something incriminating? Like what?" Katara asked. She was looking worried, just what Azula had wanted to avoid. And this was without Azula even mentioning her horrible and growing realization that Ozai was harboring some sick and wrong intentions towards her. "Isn't that really dangerous?"

"What, you thought that there would be a way for me to walk away from my father that wouldn't be dangerous?" Azula rolled her eyes. "Do you want me to share my father's shady business dealings or his involvement with the criminal underworld? Do you really want me to make you an accomplice and a target? My father might hesitate when it comes to me, but he won't spare another thought when it comes to you. Will you finally understand and accept that I can't share everything with you? If anything happens to you because of what I've told you-" Azula cut herself off before she could say anything else. She was getting far too upset and emotional, and she needed to calm down.

Fortunately, her words appeared to have connected with Katara. The Water Tribe girl looked more than a little spooked. "Alright, Azula… I'll stop pressing you for details. I just wanted to be sure that you're serious about making this break from your father," Katara spoke quietly. "I'm really sorry for pushing you."

"It's alright," Azula managed a smile. "I know that you just can't sit idle. You're a moral busybody, but I l-… like you for it." Azula really hoped that Katara hadn't caught her slight stutter there. It seemed as if she had missed it. "Anyway, you owe me an explanation about Yue."

Katara chuckled bitterly and shook her head. "It was just a stupid misunderstanding, really," she sighed. "I've been in love with Yue for years now, you see."

"Oh," was all that Azula could manage in a small voice. This was what she had wanted to hear, wasn't it? That Katara wasn't into her, because that would seriously endanger her friend. This was a good thing, right?

"Yeah, and a couple of days ago Yue told me that she loves me back," Katara continued. "But for some reason, I assumed that it meant that she was going to leave her father in order to be with me, which wasn't what she had meant at all. She wasn't very clear about it, and that's where the misunderstanding came from. We only cleared things up after we had already… well, gotten together," she finished, red in the face.

"Oh… wow," Azula said quietly. If this was a positive development, Azula wondered why it hurt so much. Something seemed to be growing within her chest, a tight and uncomfortable ball of suffocating emotions. She needed to do something to get rid of it, quickly. "So where does that leave you and Yue?" she asked.

"Back to square one of being best friends," Katara smiled, a little bitterly. "I still love her, of course. But I can only be with her if she walks away from her father."

"Well, it's good to know that I'm not the only rich girl you're trying to convince to walk away from her inheritance," Azula said. "What am I, your Plan B, perhaps?"

"What? How can you say that?" Katara glared at her, looking genuinely upset. "You're not my Plan B or Plan Anything. I thought you were one of my dearest friends and I was trying to help you get out of a terrible situation in which you were being abused! I can't believe you would suspect me of having some selfish goal here. You really are something, Azula."

"Well, I suppose it doesn't really make sense for you to try and get into Yue's or my pants after we've been disinherited," Azula shrugged.

"Oh, so I'm not a manipulative mastermind. Thank you so much for that compliment, Azula," Katara snorted, slamming her glass on the counter and turning to walk away, though she looked more exasperated than actually angry.

Azula didn't follow Katara right away. The revelation that Katara was in love with Yue was still playing merry havoc with her emotions, threatening to devastate her with a flood of tears. Azula quickly scanned the array of bottles for something stronger, pouring a generous shot of brandy and then gulping it down in one go. It burned her throat as it went down the hatch, spreading comforting warmth through her and clearing some of those upsetting feelings in her chest. It was time to put a brave and carefree smile back on her face, get back out there and resume the role of the awesome and filthy rich friend who was definitely too cool and aloof to feel upset about the girl she loved being in love with someone else.

Next chapter: The final stages of the tournament. Surely Azula isn't going to throw it away this year, right?

Chapter Text

After the second off-day, the tournament resumed with Round 7. Katara was still mentally not where she needed to be, not if she was serious about winning the title this year. Right now, things just weren't the same with both Yue and Azula when compared to how well they had gotten along at the start of the tournament. At least the tension with Yue was easing with every passing day and the traces of bitterness and resentment about that entire incident were fading, allowing their friendship to survive unscathed. Of course, on a more intimate level, the trust between them had been broken, and Katara knew that it would take far more time for that scar to heal.

When it came to Azula, she also had said some things that had seriously upset Katara, more so than anything Azula had ever said to her, but Katara was determined not to hold on to her anger. Azula had simply been her old inconsiderate self when she had made those stupid remarks about Katara having some sort of selfish interest in helping her. She might have been annoyed at Azula afterwards, but it wasn't going to stop her from worrying about the Fire Nation girl, or stop her from trying to help Azula.

As the matches of the seventh round began, everyone looked fairly chipper and ready to play following the relaxing off-day. Katara and her friends had all slept in the previous morning, taking the off-day very easy and laying off the drinks altogether, spending most of the afternoon on rigorous Pai Sho practice. Toph was about to face off against Teo, who was having a very good tournament, keeping in touch with the rest of them and aiming for a medal himself. Azula looked eager to begin her game against Aang and score her seventh victory in a row. As for Katara… well, she was facing off against an opponent she really was not looking forward to play, and it was none other than Yue.

Eventually, the signal was given and the play began. Katara immediately found herself struggling with motivation. Yue had lost her three previous games and was all but out of the running for a medal. Katara felt wretched about the mere thought of delivering yet another loss to Yue and further decimating her frail confidence. The fact that Katara badly needed the full points if she wanted to keep pace with Azula for the tournament win suddenly didn't seem to matter.

Only a few moves into their game Katara began to feel that Yue wasn't up for a fight either. So, Katara began to offer one tile exchange after another, and Yue accepted them without much thought, a clear and unspoken agreement to play out a draw. It was all over in twenty or so moves, and they rose from their seats, shook hands and then stepped slightly away from the terrace so as not to interfere with the other games, continuing to watch the large game display boards from the sidelines.

"I appreciate you not crushing me, Kat, but this draw really didn't help either of us," Yue remarked as they stood side by side, waiting on their friends to finish their games. Toph had carved out a small advantage against Teo, while Azula was dominating Aang.

"It didn't really change that much for me, though," Katara shrugged. She was now on six points, with Azula on seven if she managed to finish off Aang. "It's going to come down to my game against Azula. If I win that, I'll be set to win the tournament."

"Fair enough," Yue nodded. "And I guess winning this game wouldn't have really changed anything for me either, I'm already out of the running. Three points out of seven is pretty pathetic."

"I think you can still make the podium with a little luck and some of the other results going your way," Katara tried encouragingly. "Just focus on winning your last remaining games, Yue. I know you can do it." She really hoped that Yue could turn this around. As far as Katara was concerned, her dream outcome of the tournament was to win the gold, with Azula and Yue taking the two lesser medals, but right now, that didn't seem to be in the cards.

"Well, not losing for the fourth time in a row does make me feel a little better for tomorrow, so thank you for that," Yue smiled at her. "And I'm going to need every little bit of confidence I can muster against Toph. Still," she added, giving Katara a pointed stare. "We need to do something to make you just a little bit more ruthless, Kat."

"I know, I know," Katara sighed. "But I'm not too bothered about that at this level. It could be a problem if I decided to become a professional player, though. Losing out on the main prize because I decided to play for a draw with my best friend probably wouldn't look good."

"I'll say," Yue rolled her eyes. "There," she pointed at Aang and Azula shaking hands. "Looks like Aang got crushed again. Azula can be seriously scary when she gets into the groove."

"Tell me about it," Katara laughed. Immediately following the conclusion of the game, Aang looked as miserable as if Appa had chewed on him before spitting him right back out, but by the time he and Azula came over to join them, Aang was already smiling brightly.

"Well, so much for tripping up Azula!" Aang laughed while Azula just smiled imperiously. "Looks like I'm going to fall a little behind with my five points now."

"Five points is still a lot better than three," Yue sighed, shaking her head.

"Toph is going to catch up with you, Katara," Azula remarked, observing the display board on which the tournament officials moved large magnetic tiles to mirror the situation on the board in Toph's game with Teo. "You both will be on six points. Hmm, still too close for comfort as far as I'm concerned."

Katara nodded, knowing all too well what Azula was talking about. She, Azula and Toph were yet to play each other, and so much would come down to those three games. One thing had become perfectly clear to Katara, however. If she was serious about heading home with the main prize, there was no more room for error left to her.

Round 8 had been a largely forgettable formality for Azula, since her scheduled opponent was none other than Joo Dee. Even though she had lost to Long Feng's daughter in Ba Sing Se, that game had been a mere anomaly, courtesy of her frail mental state. Azula did not allow Joo Dee to even contemplate thoughts of a repeat performance, crushing her in less than thirty moves.

The other games of Round 8 had been far more closely contested than her destruction of Joo Dee. Yue was starting to get her shit together, even though everyone including Yue herself agreed that it was way too late. Still, Yue had scored an impressive victory against Toph, a development for which Azula felt greatly thankful to the Water Tribe girl because it had seriously dented Toph's chances of repeating her last year's tournament win. Also, Katara had prevailed against Aang in a long and epic struggle, but Azula hadn't been too surprised by that.

This all meant that the field found itself spread out before Round 9. Azula had the maximum eight points, Katara had seven points and Toph was on six, Aang on five, with Yue lagging behind on four points. Round 9 was thus set to become the most important round of the tournament, because Azula was scheduled to face Katara in what effectively felt like the game for this year's title.

Heading into their game, Azula felt reasonably confident, which actually surprised her a little. It wasn't as if she was mentally in a great shape. Her father's plans for her sat on her mind like a dark and menacing cloud. The knowledge that Katara was in love with Yue was what Azula had wanted to hear, or at least she had told herself so. In reality, it had stung more than the worst of her father's beatings. So, all things considered, Azula should have been miserable, however… just being around Katara and her awesome group of friends seemed to somehow prevent her from falling into a dark and melancholy mood. Azula didn't really understand friendship well enough to figure out just what it was about it that was keeping her spirits up high.

That was more or less Azula's mindset as her game with Katara began. Azula was aware that Katara had been dealing with a lot of emotional turmoil of her own during the tournament and was not at her best, although she had played an amazing game against Aang in the previous round. But it had also been a very long game, so Azula knew that if she could stretch their encounter into the endgame, Katara's mental and physical fatigue would likely start to tell.

And so, Azula had adjusted her tactics accordingly. Her and Katara's usual dynamic was that Azula would dominate and Katara would subm-… Katara would be on the defensive. This time, however, with the world title at stake, Azula forced herself to slow down and play a more positional game. She even invited Katara to attack, but her friend was too wary of non-existent traps, refusing the opportunity and remaining within her comfort zone.

It was only after the fortieth move that Katara caught on to Azula's plan, which was obviously to wear her out. Katara immediately adjusted her tactics. She was behind in the standings and she needed the win, yet she had been reluctant to play aggressively. That changed now, as Katara began to press forward, pushing for the exchange of some of the tiles to simplify the position, but doing so in a way that would give her slight advantage heading into the endgame. Azula countered Katara's change of plan by playing even more evasively and denying Katara some crucial tile exchanges.

Azula had to admit that Katara was playing one of her better games, and her aggression was slowly starting to pay off. Despite Azula's best attempts at evasion and distraction, Katara forced them to enter the endgame with her tiles in a much more advantageous and active placement. However, Azula had secured a different and even more crucial advantage. Katara had spent a lot of time to readjust her tactics on the fly, and she entered the endgame with only five minutes left on her timing clock, while Azula had almost a quarter of an hour remaining.

In order to win, Katara now had to play like a speed Pai Sho champion, and Azula was well aware that Katara was not good at speed Pai Sho. Azula simply had to keep evading and countering, not even thinking about forming a harmony ring herself, focusing only on stopping Katara from doing so. And so it was while hastily pondering her ninety-third move, Katara's timing clock reached zero and the tournament official stepped in to declare Azula the victor in yet another absolutely epic contest of wills between the two of them.

Azula was still in the process of shaking Katara's hand following the conclusion of their game when she was taken a little aback from the wild and raucous shouts of the spectators, many of them crying and hugging from joy. Before Azula had realized what was happening, she found herself surrounded by Yue, Toph, Aang and some of the other competitors.

"Azula, you've won!" Aang was the first to deliver the news to her. "The title is yours!"

"Yeah, have fun with my title," Toph grumbled. "I'd like it back next year, though."

"What are you talking about?" Azula blinked in surprise. She didn't think that she could have won the title in this round already. That could have only been possible if Toph had lost to Aang. Azula glanced at the updated tournament standings on the large board nearby. Yue had beaten Kori Morishita, which was nice for her, but irrelevant to Azula. And… oh, Aang had indeed done her a massive favor and had beaten Toph. This meant that with two rounds remaining, Azula had nine points and Katara was the closest follower on seven, while the others lagged behind on six points or less. Even if Azula were to lose her two final games, Katara could only catch up with her, but since Azula had just won the game between them, Azula would still be ranked ahead of Katara. This really was it. She had just won the gold medal.

As the enormity of what had just happened hit Azula, she felt her legs going weak and she sagged back into her seat. After three years of failure, in spite of some having dismissed her as the perennial choker, Azula had done it, coming out on top. The sense of relief was overwhelming, and she could not stop the onrushing wave of emotions, burying her face in her hands as her shoulders began to shake. Her friends were with her, though, pulling her into a tight group hug, and Azula allowed herself to be comforted, at that moment unable to feel shame for such a public display of emotions. And the public seemed to actually love and appreciate her genuine emotions on display, cheering and chanting her name louder and louder.

"I'm so proud of you," Katara's voice was what eventually pulled Azula out of this emotionally overcharged state, grounding her once more. "You really deserve this victory, Azula."

"And tomorrow is another day-off," Yue added with a chuckle. "That means we can really crank up the celebrations in your suite, Azula."

"We can do that, but I want to do you one better," Azula said, having largely recovered and wiped her cheeks clean once again. Years ago, she would have claimed that this victory was all down to her simply possessing the superior talent compared to all of these losers trying to keep up with her and failing. But Azula felt that she had done at least some growing up as of late, and she wasn't as emotionally colorblind as not to realize the role that Katara and her friends had played in her road to success. If Katara, Yue, Aang and Toph had simply decided to stick together and had refused to include her in their ranks, keeping Azula lonely and isolated in a mental black hole, she could have never achieved this. As selfish as Azula often was, she could not deny that a part of this victory belonged to her friends, and she felt an obligation to share her success with them. "Tonight, I'm taking you all out to the best restaurant in the city. Let's see how large a bill we can work up to between the five of us, alright?" she said with a smile on her lips.

Azula was glad to see her friends looking excited, all as one. "Azula, I have to tell you something. I wasn't sure I would enjoy being friends with you quite this much. But you are one seriously cool bitch, let me tell you that," Toph said, playfully (and really painfully, not that Azula would show it) elbowing her in the ribs, the rest of their friends happily echoing the touching sentiment.

Even though the public's interest in the final two rounds of the tournament had faded after the hometown favorite had secured the gold medal early, the other contestants still had plenty to play for. Katara and her friends had celebrated Azula's victory in style, partying hard after Round 9 and the celebrations had carried over a little into the tournament off-day. This meant that on the morning of the penultimate round, the five of them had arrived at the large open air terrace a little worse for wear, slightly tired and not in the best physical shape to play Pai Sho.

Katara and Yue were fortunate because they were facing easy opponents, Joo Dee and Meng Li, respectively. They both scored easy victories. In the battle of two hangover girls, Azula defeated Toph. A very tired looking and yawning Aang lost to Kori Morishita. At the end of the tenth round, Katara could celebrate another silver medal for the second year in a row. She was on eight points and untouchable because Toph and Aang had really started to slip towards the end of the tournament. Even more astonishingly, their failures had allowed Yue to storm right back into contention. Ahead of the final round, four players were tied for the third place, Aang, Toph, Yue and Teo all locked on six points. This tight race had forced the tournament officials to come forth and declare that if at the end of the final round, more than two players would be tied on the same amount of points the deadlock would be resolved by a quick round-robin of speed Pai Sho.

So, the final day of the tournament finally arrived. Katara was scheduled to play Toph in a game that meant nothing to her, but meant a great deal to Toph. Katara wasn't going to throw it intentionally, of course, but she found her motivation to be lacking. Azula was facing Kori Morishita in a game that didn't mean much to either of them, but Azula was very keen to preserve her record of wins only. When she had won her first title four years ago, at the age of thirteen, she had done so with a perfect record. She was highly motivated to repeat this accomplishment.

Aang was playing Meng Li in the final round. He wasn't about to lose this game, even if he clearly felt pity for Meng because the young girl had the embarrassing tally of ten losses from ten games. She was not a terrible player by any means, but she was the least experienced among the contestants and still had much to learn. Yue's final round opponent was Shoji Nomura, while Teo Guyuk faced off against Kei Lo. Both Yue and Teo were heavily fancied to win their games.

The final round began. At this stage of the tournament, all of these young prodigies were dealing with massive physical and mental fatigue, and most of them just wished for the tournament to end, especially those contestants who didn't have much to play for. As a result, the matches of the final day didn't last very long. One by one, those highly motivated players with a shot for the bronze medal began to close out their games. Yue was the first to force Shoji into surrender, followed by Aang's defeat of Meng. Azula dealt a deathblow to Kori, and a few moves later Teo won as well. The game that lasted the longest was Katara's contest with Toph. And while Katara had not intended to make things easy for her young friend, the reality was that she was exhausted and unmotivated, while Toph was determined and desperate. Katara just couldn't force herself to play at the level that was necessary to withstand Toph's assault, and even though it took Toph more than fifty moves, she finally forced Katara to surrender.

So, at the end of the final round, four competitors were tied for the third place, and they would now be forced to play a quick round-robin of speed Pai Sho. This was something quite unprecedented. Katara could not remember witnessing such a nail biting tie-breaker in any of the major finals within her lifetime. The spectators appeared quite excited as well, their numbers having swelled for this dramatic final round. Katara spotted Sokka standing next to Suki in the press box, his reporter girlfriend jotting down remarks in her notebook and appearing as excited as the fans. All the other competitors had gathered at one end of the open air terrace to give the four contenders for bronze some room to breathe, but they all watched the proceedings with rapt fascination. Azula came to stand side by side with Katara as they both watched the boards being set up for the upcoming decisive games.

"Who do you think stands the best chance?" Azula asked quietly. "I've no idea how skilled either of them is at speed Pai Sho."

"Well, I know that Aang doesn't particularly like speed Pai Sho, he prefers to have the time to think, just like me. And I think Teo is kind of the same," Katara mused. "Yue is pretty good at the speed game, but I think Toph is better. Toph can really hammer away those moves with very little thinking, a bit like you do."

"Yeah, I think Toph has it in the bag," Azula nodded in agreement. "But I don't have to ask who you want to see winning, right? You're in Yue's corner."

Katara wasn't certain if she had only imagined slight bitterness in Azula's voice, but a quick glance at the other girl did not give anything away. "I am not rooting against anyone here, I'll be happy for whoever wins this," Katara replied honestly. "But if I have to pick a winner, then yes, I would prefer Yue to win."

Soon, the signal was given and the first round began, Toph playing Teo and Aang facing Yue. Contrary to their predictions, Toph made several costly mistakes and lost quickly. The game between Aang and Yue lasted longer, but Aang inevitably ended up starved for time and it led to a fatal mistake, giving Yue the win.

"Toph looks really tired," Katara realized, having observed their young friend for a while. "I guess I pushed her harder than I thought I did."

"She's also playing scared and nervous, you can't win like that," Azula agreed. "Teo looks cool as a cucumber, though. I won't be surprised if he takes the bronze. I bet none of the so called Pai Sho experts saw that coming," she added, rolling her eyes.

"He looks delighted just to be here," Katara smiled. "That's a very liberating feeling. He can play with no pressure."

"I think it's the same for Yue, though," Azula mused. "After your game ended in a draw, she seriously thought that it was all over for her. She looks pretty relaxed, too."

"Yes, I think you're right about that," Katara said. The second round began shortly afterwards. Toph was playing Yue, and the pattern of the first round repeated itself. Toph again made crucial mistakes and Yue punished her with no mercy. The game between Aang and Teo went down to the wire, the two of them trading mistakes and the game balanced on a knife edge until its very conclusion. In the end, it was Aang who made the last mistake, and Teo could celebrate his second surprise win in a row.

"Whoa, who could have predicted before the tournament that Teo and Yue would be fighting for the bronze?" Azula sounded genuinely impressed.

"It's really exciting, I'm so nervous!" Katara exclaimed, watching Teo and Yue preparing for their epic showdown for the bronze medal. Katara felt like she was going to literally start bouncing up and down on the stage, so in order to anchor herself, she slipped her hand into Azula's, holding tightly onto it. Azula gave her a slightly conflicted look, but made no move to withdraw her hand, eventually giving Katara's hand a slight supportive squeeze as the final round began.

With nothing to play for, Aang and Toph made a couple of token moves before stopping the clock and shaking each other's hand, agreeing to a draw. The eyes of every spectator were on Yue and Teo, anyway. The Earth Kingdom boy was clearly sensing an opportunity here, a chance for a major upset. From the outset, he began an impressive assault on Yue's position. The girl from Agna Qel'a, however, remained cool and collected under pressure, fending off every attempt by her opponent to pierce her defensive tile structure. Ever so slowly, the tide began to turn. Yue played with great composure and conviction, as Teo began to grow nervous and lost heart. His attack stalled, his tiles retreating or getting swallowed up as Yue launched her counterattack. It didn't take long for the game to be over and Yue rose with her arms raised and a massive grin on her face, as her fellow competitors rushed to congratulate her.

A few minutes later, as Azula, Katara and Yue were being led away to prepare for the victory ceremony, Katara could not stop feeling impressed by Yue's amazing comeback. She was already known around the world of Pai Sho as a great tournament player and a strong finisher, and she had just cemented that reputation with another bronze medal. Her appearance truly was quite deceptive, and Katara wondered whether that was a big part of what pulled her towards Yue so strongly. At the first shallow glance, Yue came across as soft, harmless, overly friendly and rather girly. In reality, underneath all that, there was surprising mental toughness and nerves of steel.

As soon as they were left alone to get themselves ready for the victory ceremony, the first thing they did was to lean into a lengthy and comforting group hug. Yue had been reigning in her emotions for a while now in order to maintain control, but now she let these emotions pour forth in a flood, breaking down in tears of relief and happiness. Katara had spent a long time comforting her best friend while Azula had tried to join in, being adorably awkward about it. Eventually, after Yue had calmed down, they had begun to get ready for the medal presentation. Yue's makeup needed a lot of retouching, and all three of them looked a little ruffled following all the excitement and the hugging.

"This really is my dream pedestal as far as I'm concerned, and I don't want this to be taken as a knock on our younger friends," Katara said, having made herself look acceptably presentable. "But Aang and Toph will have two more years to win the U18 title while this was the final year in this bracket for the three of us."

"Yeah, I'm pretty happy about my haul at this level," Yue smiled. "What about you, Azula?"

"Eh, I should have won last year in Ba Sing Se," Azula frowned. "But there's no use crying about it. It's… not bad overall, I suppose."

"I'm quite pleased as well, even if I had expected myself to win at least once," Katara said. In truth she wasn't particularly disappointed. Over these three years of competing at the U18 level, she had scored two silver medals, Yue walked away with two bronze medals, while Azula also had two medals, gold and bronze respectively. It was quite the remarkable haul of medals. Katara was aware that the whole Pai Sho world was mired in speculation about what these three highly talented players would do next. As far as Katara herself was concerned, she wasn't going to turn professional any time soon, her plans for full time medical studies were too important to her. As for Azula and Yue… well, their futures were uncertain and depended on the plans of their strict and controlling fathers. But this line of thought had the potential to make Katara seriously depressed, so she decided not to go there. This was, after all, the time to be merry.

"I must say, I didn't expect you to crush us this badly, Azula," Yue smiled at the Fire Nation girl. "In retrospect, offering you that bet was a terrible idea."

"Indeed," Katara said. "It's such a shame that there's no time for us to go and buy those maid outfits as per our bet," she added with relief. Playing the role of Azula's maid, and doing so publicly, would have been extremely embarrassing. But it would also be kind of thrilling, wouldn't it? Katara sighed, frowning at her own treacherous imagination.

"Ah… about that," Azula spoke up. She looked frighteningly smug. "Katara, you should know that after I won our game and secured the gold medal, I called the governess of the Sozin's Island estate and asked her to send two of the prettiest maid outfits for you and Yue. They arrived late last night."

"Spirits," Katara groaned. "We're screwed, aren't we?" she looked desperately at Yue.

"Oh yes," Yue giggled. "There's only one way to avoid feeling utterly embarrassed about what's to come."

"And what way is that?" Katara asked.

"Why… the way of getting completely shitfaced," came Yue's amused answer.

Next chapter: You guessed it, it's the after-party. And it's going to be a wild one.

Chapter Text

It was late in the afternoon when Katara and Yue arrived at Azula's penthouse suite for the after-party preparations. After the two Water Tribe girls had taken a look at the servant girl outfits they were supposed to wear as a result of their lost bet, both Yue and Katara had requested some liquid courage before they dared to put their party clothes on. So, they had spent half an hour chatting away over a bottle of Limoncello, working through it a little faster than recommended and becoming fairly tipsy as a result. Katara had still begged and pleaded, trying to wriggle out of fulfilling the bet, but Azula had remained resolute and had not wavered. It was only after Yue had suggested to Katara that the dressing up might actually be fun, that Katara had stopped being annoying and finally agreed to go along with it.

Eventually the pair disappeared into Azula's bedroom to put on their new outfits, leaving Azula sitting at the bar and finishing the last few drops of her lemon liqueur. Honestly, she didn't understand why her two friends were kicking up a fuss. The dress she had bought for Katara back in Caldera City was probably just as risqué. The maid outfits were certainly meant to please Ozai and his male guests at the estate, so they had been designed accordingly, but they were still practical articles of clothing. If Azula had wanted to be particularly cruel, she could have ordered some ridiculously revealing maid outfits intended for sexual roleplay. Besides, Azula clearly remembered Yue once having worn a black collar mini dress that had the same visual aesthetic as a maid's outfit. Really, her two friends had no valid reason for complaining.

After taking far more time than was reasonably necessary, Katara and Yue finally emerged, wearing their new outfits. As Azula had expected, they both were absolutely killing their white trimmed black dresses, which were short enough to leave a bit of the stocking welt visible. Normally, the outfit would include black stilettos, but thinking about Katara, Azula had asked for something with a more manageable heel, and the replacement shoes looked to be working out just fine. Both Katara and Yue had decided to wear their hair all the way down, appearing radiant and giggling as they stood with arms around each other's waists, feather dusters in their free hands as they whirled them at Azula.

Azula had already become accustomed to the sensation of blood rushing to her cheeks and making her face feel like it was burning in reaction to the way Katara would sometimes look or smile at her. Sometimes Yue would make her feel that way as well, though not as often. But now, looking at the two Water Tribe enchantresses, Azula felt that familiar heat hitting not just her face, but expanding to the other parts of her body as well, making her shiver. "Well, fuck," Azula managed, taking the final sip of her liqueur before slamming the glass back on the table. "Fine, alright, I admit it. I'm a fucking lesbian, alright? Are you happy now?"

Katara and Yue exchanged amused stares and then nearly fell over, starting to howl with laughter. "Spirits… must stop myself from crying," Yue wheezed. "Don't want to redo makeup…"

"Too late!" Katara was already in tears from laughing too hard. "Only Azula could state what we already knew for several years in such a hilarious way!"

"Oh great, I'm glad you're having so much fun," Azula glared at the two Water Tribe idiots. "And don't you dare spread this around, alright? I'll deny everything before silencing you permanently."

"Ooh, scary!" Yue giggled. "You better go and get yourself ready, angry mistress," she added, waving the feather duster close to Azula's face. Azula sneezed violently.

"Stop waving that thing around," she glared at the Water Tribe girl. That said, Yue was making a good point. It was almost eight o'clock and she needed to get ready. The after-party kicked off at nine, and they still had to get there. Azula didn't want to take her Spider today, not when Katara and Yue were wearing these outfits - because their clothes would become crumpled, and not at all because Azula didn't want Yue and Katara to squeeze tightly against one another while wearing the maid uniforms. That would imply that Azula was somehow jealous towards Katara and Yue, and that couldn't be true because Azula was above such petty emotions as jealousy. Yes, there was a perfectly practical reason why Azula was going to call a cab to take them to the after-party.

Huffing, Azula disappeared into the bedroom and started to browse the collection of outfits she had arranged to be sent ahead of her to the hotel. Azula had her eyes on a pair of gorgeous black and red knee high lace boots, but she hadn't decided yet what to wear with the boots. Her eyes soon settled on a gorgeous red and black Harlequin pattern dress that seemed to go particularly well with the boots. The only problem was that it was a fit and flare dress, and Azula wasn't really a fan of those. They were more a Katara and Yue thing than an Azula thing, a little too airy and girly for her. Still, the pattern just seemed to go along so well with the boots that Azula decided to try the dress on anyway… and she ended up not regretting her choice. However, this now meant that she had to reconsider her hairstyle as well. She had intended to go with an authoritative top knot, but it no longer worked with this more girly dress, so in the end she decided to keep her hair halfway up. Finally, Azula spent fifteen more minutes on her makeup and selection of jewelry before returning to join the two Water Tribe girls, Katara and Yue having stepped out on the roof for a breath of fresh evening air.

Before joining them outside, Azula made a quick call to the reception and was reassured that a taxi would be waiting for them in front of the hotel in five minutes. With everything sorted, Azula walked out onto the roof. Yue and Katara immediately stopped their conversation, turning to face her. Azula took a lot of satisfaction from the approving way the two girls regarded her, both of them blushing lightly.

"Wow, you look amazing, Azula," Katara gushed. "I would say as always, but you've really outdone yourself with this outfit."

"I agree completely," Yue nodded. "I was telling Katara how you're probably going to dress up like some harsh looking mistress, but I'm glad to have been proven wrong," she added with a wink.

"Hah, that was the initial plan, but I don't know, I guess I just became inspired," Azula replied. "Anyway, the cab should be here by the time we leave the hotel, so… shall we be on our way?"

Having received nods from Yue and Katara, the three girls were soon on their way to the downtown cocktail bar where the after-party was being held this year. Upon entering the premises, Azula was pleased to remark that the cocktail bar made for a more private and intimate setting than the large nightclub they had partied at two years ago in Caldera City. Music was already playing, but nobody was dancing yet. Azula wasn't sure how one was supposed to dance to this guy shouting something about needing his fire lit, anyway. It seemed that whoever was in charge of the music was a little confused as to what was suitable for dancing and what wasn't. The interior of the cocktail bar was perhaps a little too kitschy for Azula's taste, but she didn't particularly care about that. It was the final day of Azula's freedom with Katara, Yue and their friends, and she intended to make the most of it by getting completely hammered in a safe environment.

As far as Azula could tell, all the other competitors were already here. Toph and Aang were sitting with Teo and Meng, but Azula decided against joining the younger kids since she definitely intended to get sauced. Azula reasoned that Yue would probably be happy to go along with her plan. Katara would be the harder nut to crack, but she was a little tipsy already, and she wanted to stop feeling embarrassed about her outfit, which meant that Katara was unlikely to turn down a drink either. At another table, Azula saw the three other Fire Nation teenagers sitting together, On Ji and her boyfriend Shoji, together with Kei Lo. Next to them, Joo Dee and Kori sat with two boys Azula did not recognize, but they looked like Shuhon locals, suggesting that Joo Dee and Kori had successfully managed to recruit dates for themselves. Finally, Katara's brother Sokka sat at one of the nearby tables together with his reporter girlfriend whose name Azula couldn't remember for the life of her.

"Let's sit with your brother," Azula decided for them all. Yue looked momentarily uncomfortable at the suggestion, but she obeyed before Azula could remind her that she would not tolerate any backtalk from a servant girl this evening. She guessed that Katara probably wanted to hang out with her brother, besides Azula had her own reasons for wanting to sit with Sokka. She had a favor to ask of the Water Tribe boy.

"What the heck is up with those outfits?" were Sokka's first words as they approached the table, the Water Tribe boy staring at his sister and ex-girlfriend with incomprehension.

"Uh… we lost a bet with Azula?" Katara replied, blushing heatedly. She and Yue were definitely attracting some stares, as was Azula herself.

"What was the bet about?" Sokka's girlfriend asked. Azula used the opportunity to take a closer look at her. Honestly, she was kind of cute, if somewhat plain and her clothes reflected it. She was wearing a black crop top with white 'Slut In Training' caption, a denim miniskirt and black go-go boots.

"We bet on who would win the tournament, and the two who didn't win would then have to dress up as servant girls," Yue explained. If she had been uncomfortable with being near Sokka and his girlfriend, she seemed to have gotten over it quickly.

"Damn, accepting that bet was a bad idea, considering the way Azula crushed everyone this year," Sokka chuckled.

"Damn straight," Azula nodded. She withdrew a few hundred yuan banknotes from her purse. "You're eighteen, right?" she looked at Sokka.

"Yeah, I am," Sokka nodded, pointing at his girlfriend. "And so is Suki." Oh right, Suki, that was her name.

"Great, then you can keep the booze flowing for us," Azula said decisively.

"Wait, I'm not buying drinks for minors, especially not for my little sister," Sokka protested.

"Oh, put a sock in it, Sokka, you were always trying to get us drunk, even way back when I was like fourteen," Katara rolled eyes at her brother. "You're just trying to show Suki what an upstanding guy you are, right?"

"It's quite alright, Sokka, let's help the girls out, shall we?" Suki smiled at her boyfriend. Azula mentally added another point to the column with reasons to like Suki.

"Here's some money," Azula pushed the stack of bills towards Sokka, five hundred yuan altogether, enough to get the local Fire Fountain City football team completely plastered. "That's both for the drinks and to keep the bartender from raising a stink. I mean, he's going to realize that you're ordering stuff for us, and we're still considered minors for some dumb reason. We need to keep him happy. Now, do you know what sort of cocktails they serve here?"

"We asked, and the bartender said that if you can name it, he can make it," Suki chuckled.

"Oh, a confident bastard," Azula grinned. "Alright, get us three strawberry daiquiris, Sokka." Sokka rose and went straight up to the bar, looking too taken aback to complain about Azula's bossing.

"You're aware that you're ordering my boyfriend around like you own him, right?" Suki asked, looking straight at Azula.

"Yeah, and?" Azula looked back at the Kyoshi girl.

Suki burst into laughter. "Oh boy, you really are a piece of work, Nakamura," she chuckled. "But you're in luck. I have a soft spot for ladies who are this hands-on."

"Well, I'm not pleased at all," Katara whined. "You didn't even ask us what we wanted to drink!"

"Oh, and since when do servant girls get to choose?" Azula glared at her. "You'll drink whatever your mistress tells you to, and you're going to enjoy it." Katara actually blushed at that, demurely lowering her eyes in a way that made Azula feel very warm once again.

A while after their cocktails had been delivered and were in the process of being consumed, someone among the staff remembered that they were supposed to be playing music to dance to instead of showing off their pretentious personal tastes. Soon enough, Katara started to become anxious about dancing, begging Azula to let her dance with Yue while claiming that 'I Can't Help Myself' by the Four Tops was her current favorite song. That didn't mean anything to Azula, since she wasn't keeping up with the current pop music trends. Still, since she wanted to speak with Katara's brother in private, Azula jumped at this opportunity to temporarily get rid of Yue and Katara. As the two Water Tribe girls joined the other dancers on the floor, Azula began to worry that Sokka and Suki might decide to follow the example set by the others. Azula then had a lucky break when Suki went for a visit to the restroom, although she did mention her intent to dance with Sokka once she had returned. Still, this gave Azula the opening she had been waiting for.

"Sokka?" she spoke with grim seriousness, immediately capturing the attention of the older boy. "I have something very important to ask of you."

"Uh…" Sokka looked very surprised by her serious tone of voice. "Sure, I guess?"

Azula looked around the room, frowning slightly. Suki could very well return before she had finished explaining her request to Sokka. Also, there were plenty of other people around who might decide to walk up to them and interrupt her, and that just wouldn't do. "Can we step outside for a moment?" Azula asked. Sokka's eyes widened even further. "I know this is a weird request, but please trust me, it's very important."

"Umm, Suki might become angry or suspicious about me leaving the bar with you," Sokka still refused, insisting on wasting her time.

"Please, don't make me beg, alright?" Azula narrowed her eyes at him. "I don't want to overdramatize things, but this could be a matter of life or death for me."

"What the fuck?" Sokka gasped. "Uh… well, alright… in that case, sure." He finally rose from his seat and walked towards the exit, Azula following him. She cast a glance towards the dance floor, but fortunately Yue and Katara were too preoccupied with each other to be looking elsewhere. "You should probably explain yourself," Sokka said immediately once they had left the bar.

Azula instead dug into her purse and withdrew another wad of cash, three hundred yuan, passing it over to Sokka. He reluctantly took the money. "I need you to buy something for me, Sokka," she said.

"Uh, like what?" he asked, still looking utterly perplexed.

"Well, my preference would be a handgun of some sort. I'm a pretty handy shot, you see. But I was always handed a weapon prepared by an assistant, so I don't really know to actually operate a handgun. I'm sure I could figure it out, but… I might also seriously hurt myself. It's probably a bad idea to try," Azula mused. "Let's scrap the gun option, how about a knife? A really good, solid and sharp hunting knife."

"Wait, why do you need a knife? Are you in some sort of trouble? Also, why can't you just buy it yourself?" Sokka peppered her with questions.

"Am I in trouble? I live with my father, Sokka. I'm perpetually in trouble," Azula rolled her eyes. "As for why I can't buy it myself, you just don't understand what it means to be me. First of all, my father probably has me watched most of the time. Second, someone might sell me the knife, yes. But then, they're probably going to write a little letter to my father saying something along the lines of 'Dear Mr. Nakamura. I thought you should know that I sold a hunting knife to your daughter. It struck me as odd that she would need a knife. If this information was of any worth to you, perhaps I could hope for a small reward?'"

"Fuck, that is insane!" Sokka exclaimed, louder than Azula would have preferred. "Are you planning to stab your father? I don't want to be the one buying a murder weapon!"

"Don't be ridiculous!" Azula chided him. "I don't plan to do anything like that. I just… want to be prepared in case he escalates the punishments he hands out to me." Yes, that ought to convince him. I'm not going to spell out exactly what I'm suspecting my father might attempt.

"Spirits almighty," Sokka managed, running his hands through his hair. He looked seriously freaked out by her request. Azula supposed she could understand him. "Alright, since Katara has told me about some of the stuff you're dealing with, I'm going to help you. Mostly because your father is the nastiest piece of work that I've ever heard of. Does Katara know about this?" he asked.

Azula shuddered visibly. "Are you kidding me? She would freak out and lose her mind over this," Azula shook her head vehemently. "I've spent months trying to convince her that I have the situation with my father well under control."

"You don't have things under control," Sokka stated.

"Of course not, hence the knife," Azula sighed. "Anyway, Katara can't know about this, do you agree with me? You know how… what's the word… empathetic she is, right? Please, you have to promise to keep this from her, okay?"

Sokka looked thoughtful, then nodding. "Yeah, you're right," he said. "I've seen how Katara gets when she becomes really worried about you or Yue. If she knew that you're in so much trouble that you might need a knife to defend yourself with… ouch. I'll get you your knife, Azula, but you also have to promise to keep this to yourself and not to upset my sister."

"I promise, obviously," Azula said quickly. "Now, you're leaving tomorrow on the same plane as Katara and Yue, right?" Sokka nodded. "Alright. You can buy the knife tomorrow morning and bring it with you to the airport. I'll be taking Yue and Katara in my car. We can meet at the airport and arrange an exchange, does that sound good?"

"That does sound good," Sokka nodded. "I'm quite impressed by your ability to think on the fly. You're pretty sharp."

"I'm going to add some more points to the column of reasons why I sort of like you, too," Azula admitted, then pointing towards the door. "But let's get back inside before Suki decides to stab me with a shard of glass."

Several hours later, Sokka still felt bothered by Azula's request to buy her a knife. That whole episode had completely derailed his evening and made it impossible for him to focus on what he had hoped to do, and that was to simply spend a fun evening with Suki. Besides, at the rate with which Azula, Yue and Katara were downing their drinks, Sokka had quickly realized that he would have to remain relatively sober throughout the evening because the three younger girls would definitely need someone to take care of them once they had passed out.

He fully intended to honor Azula's request, even though he still had plenty of misgivings about her plan. Sokka wondered if there really was nothing suitable at the Nakamura estate that Azula could have used as a weapon, but he figured that Ozai's servants were probably watching her closely. It just seemed so crazy that anyone would need a weapon to protect themselves from their father. Maybe it felt so wrong to Sokka because he had grown up believing that he had the best dad in the world, looking up to Hakoda and idolizing him. The only problem with his father was that Hakoda was not home nearly enough, but Sokka never blamed his father for that.

"So, this evening didn't pan out quite the way we had imagined, huh?" Suki asked, sitting down next to him, carrying a couple of sodas from the bar for them both. She reached out and kissed Sokka's cheek.

"Yeah… sorry about that," Sokka replied, turning towards his girlfriend and reciprocating with a soft kiss on the lips. "I'm glad you're so understanding, Suki." This was their final evening together before parting for several months at least, so Sokka would have understood if Suki had been a bit peeved about looking after Katara and her friends instead of having some fun together. Still, Sokka figured that Suki probably found it very interesting to interact with the most talented Pai Sho players of their generation in such an informal setting. Even if she had promised not to use any of this knowledge in her publications, she was still learning something useful.

"It's fine, don't worry about it," Suki smiled at him. "I honestly thought that Pai Sho players would be seriously nerdy, and I guess some of them are, but your sister and her friends are acting like real party animals. Is that normal for them?"

"No, it really isn't," Sokka said, shaking his head. He had been a little concerned and surprised about the way the three girls were behaving, but the more he thought about what Katara had shared with him about Azula and Yue's situation